Concerning Kingdoms and Empires
And why the latter inevitably collapse.
from the desk of the Master of Buckland, Took Hall
One of the odd things for the unlearned to discover is that very often the way they conceive things is not merely wrong, simply being not correct, but are actually diametrically opposed to the truth. (There is a difference between being wrong and being diametrically opposed to what is true, dear reader.) So that if X is true, rather than their belief being Y, it's actually the negation of X.
Young Hobbits are often surprised to learn that the smelliest piles of manure produce the tastiest produce, or the most perfume filled flowers. They have rightly learned that manure is, for their person, to be avoided. But they lack the insight into nature to see the deeper connections that exist.
If you look at a map of what the Big Folk call ”Europe'' one can see an example of this. To the uninitiated, the North Sea looks like a barrier. It is very big. You cannot see Norway from England. It seems to be a barrier to trade, culturel, religion, and connections of any and all types. But the most similar language to English is not any other language in the British Isles, but rather is a small, and sadly dying, language spoken in the Low Countries, Frisian. Rather than being a barrier, the North Sea facilitates transmission.
There are fairly well known figures about the cost of transporting grain from Alexandria to Rome by ship; costing the Roman’s something like the same amount to send the grain 40 miles by cart. We live on land. We recognise the physical barriers that are on land like mountain ranges, but when it comes to nice pleasant country we do not see the difficulties that it represents. A Picard in many ways has more in common with an Englishman from the Norfolk marshes or a Dane from Jutland than he does with some Savoyard or Occitan. France is a big country. And its much easier to travel to Oslo from Calais, a journey of 700 miles as that big stupid raven flies, than it probably was to endure the trek even to somewhere as close as Paris, some 140 miles away.
Friction, dear reader, is present everywhere in many unforeseen ways. And when things reach a critical mass, that friction starts to act on them in ways that are counter-intuitive to our small parochial perspectives. We might wish to think of these as emergent properties of things that extend beyond our immediate experience.
You’ll be pleased to know that I caught a glancing blow on that raven. He's been staying out of reach since my last letter to you. He’s hopping around with a little less dignity, and with three or four fewer feathers than he was. So I am enjoying writing this with a few new quills. Do not ask me where I got the ink.
The history of Eriador is a long one. And fascinating. Both of which I may have said in my last letter. You need patience to wade through the various tomes that have been written on the subject, but it is well worth it. I will not bore you with details and facts here, but do encourage you to learn about it for yourself. And beware. I hear some unscrupulous propagandists are making what the Big Folk call a ‘teevee show’, whatever that may be, on the subject.
But let me tell you another generality about Eriador to accompany the one I told you last week; the inability for their king to make new laws. This is that Eriador was not an empire.
Eriador by rights in grandeur, power, and scale deserved to be an empire. And some might argue that it was an empire by default. I humbly dissent from this opinion. Rather Eriador preserved two Kingdoms, Gondor and Arnor. This was very wise on their part.
Foolish men, of which there are many amongst the Big Folk, if not the majority, dream of power. The road to Mordor is paved with such desires. I discussed this last time. What makes it more tragic is that this power is desired not for any distinct purposes or ends, not to make a better world or community, and also even those who desire it for those purposes seem more than capable of making evil out of it in the end. No. More often than not it's merely for the having of it. Power for the sake of it will make you, in the end, like poor old Smeagol.
I try to have a light touch in my moralising in these epistles, but if I may put that aside for a moment, I would encourage you, my dear reader, to seek simple pleasures and the good life rather than power and control. When someone asserts their power against you, be like the Galilean and give him more than he asks. He will either damn himself with this excess or be shamed into seeing his error. This is easier to write than to do, I know. I do not tell you to let evil trample over you, but I also tell you not to be proud. The best potatoes, as grown in Buckland, whatever that scoundrel Farmer Maggot says, are not sat on and watched all season. They are left to themselves to thrive. Do not sit and watch them as if, out of some hubris, your watching of them increases their bounty or prevents them from spoiling.
There are always more sad and bitter things to say about power, but I shall leave it there for the time being, other than to say that the desire for power is boundless. And so many already powerful men have dreamed of more of it. But what, dear reader, comes of this? As usual, nothing but tears in the end.
Men dream of being chieftains, and chieftains of being kings, and kings of being emperors. And what of emperors? Those most august of all? Well, inevitably, they dream of being gods. Now it is evident the sort of downfall this will lead the most mighty of all into. Madness of a type that I, the most lowliest of all those who have any power whatsoever (Hobbits having none, and, I being the Old Took, with some small authority over those who have no power to speak of at all) can only puzzle over. I find it quite bad enough dealing with wandering cows and missing ale. No Hobbit ever steals ale, but we have been known to borrow it without permission from time to time… Meanwhile, the hunger for power that would drive an emperor to try and make himself a god can, from my perspective in my quite comfortable little Hobbit hole (though Took Hall is as large as a Hobbit hole is want to get, with my books and my ale and my cakes), only be described as madness. But there we are. It happens amongst the Big Folk. Along with many other things Hobbits can only look on as madness.
But there is another problem in dreaming of an empire besides madness. Something happens when a Kingdom becomes an Empire, something is lost. An empire is able to wield power. It has an immense amount of it. But an ever increasing amount of that power, and the wielding of it, is turned inwards. Let us consider what an empire actually is.
A kingdom is a recognised area. A chiefdom of some sort or another is not based upon geography, but rather a group of people. There are really two types of kings and kingdoms. There are ‘Kings of Land’ and there are ‘Kings of People’. Kings of land are of a higher rank. Kings of people are sort of High Chieftains or Low Kings. They are monarchs of a distinct people who have now settled in one particular area. The Scots are a good example of this. There is no ‘King of Scotland’. There certainly were colloquially, but the title was properly ‘King of the Scots’. England on the other hand had a ‘King of England’ rather than a ‘King of the English.’ This was a more permanent type of Kingdom, fixed to the land rather than the people. It was also a higher ranking form of Kingdom, and one of the reasons there was a natural expectation of the Scots to be vassals or clients of some sort or another. The King of France was the King of England’s equal, not the King of the Scots.
I shall then restrict myself to that of the type of Kings of England. England is a fixed concept. With few exceptions the extent of England will not change. There might be areas currently under the Scots that are properly England, but somewhere like Gibraltar is not England nor will it ever be taken to be. There are times when the King of England might control areas beyond the border of England, but that does not make them England. And likewise with the people. There is a focus. There are the English and there are everyone else. There might also be non-Englishmen within the Kingdom, but the distinction remains.
Now consider an Empire. An Empire is a large and sprawling entity with no well defined borders. What belonged to Rome was whatever Rome controlled at the point. Had Rome been able to conquer India, we could just as easily talk about ‘Roman India’ as we do about Roman Britain. And likewise, a ‘Roman’ is not really equivalent to an ‘Englishman’—at least not in how we use the term ‘Roman’. Anyone could become a Roman citizen, but one must be born English. The Roman Empire was a union of peoples bound to a civic identity rather than a national identity. A perhaps better more contemporary example is the Austro-Hungarian Empire, made up of all sorts of peoples and having subsidiary crowns and kingdoms within it. Unfortunately for that Empire, the concept of Czechness or Polishness never became subsidiary to the Imperial identity, other than for maybe the Austrians for whom the two identities were really synonymous.
What this means is that Empires are not the tight-focused entities that Kingdoms are, and that often can punch above their weight. A well-placed kingdom can stop a determined Empire, if they clash at the right moment.
Eventually an empire loses the momentum that sustained its growth. The strength that it is producing is eventually needed to hold it together, and it can no longer think of invading new territory. It has too much territory and is trying to hold together a collection of different peoples with antipathies towards one another, if not the empire itself, as well as increasingly different aspirations.
Up until this point, the Empire and earlier Kingdom was dominated by warriors. It was formed by strength and arms. Administration is needed less when you have Armenians ruled over by an Armenian. When Armenians are ruled over by Byzantines or Turks, however, then you need an increasingly large civil service. Of course you need men at arms to do terrible things to the Armenians, but this also means not having the men at the border, but inside the empire. So gradually, as the Empire grows and loses momentum, you have warriors displaced by mandarins, and performing policing functions. This creates a feedback cycle. More administration is needed, but administrators are not warriors. Kingdoms, by contrast, combine the roles into feudal lords (with varying degrees of success), but both less warring and administering is needed with one’s own people. The skills of administration for an imperial possession would be very difficult for a warrior class to perform, and what most of the functions that the warriors do perform now amounts to oppression. And so less resources find their way into expansion and more are devoted towards maintenance.
Eventually this produces a sclerotic entity that falls to raiding tribes or emergent kingdoms, which have the focus and vitality to take on what on paper, look like monsters, but are actually paper tigers.
Let me give you an analogy that might strike a chord with the Big Folk. One of the problems that large corporations have is in maintaining their focus and agility. Porsche is a sports car maker. That is where their expertise and abilities lie. Ignoring the Cayenne and the Panamera, (aberrations whose success show that old maxim, that there's no accounting for taste) if Porsche said they wanted to step outside their expertise and start making fighter jets, we would reasonably question the wisdom of this decision. Why would Porsche risk something like this? Often the answer is that most-desirable of phenomenon to the greedy: ‘growth.’
Growth is accepted as a universal good these days by many. But what good does growth bring? Power. And what is power good for? If the growth or power comes from a source that is outside of the core set of concerns of the organisation, there very quickly arises a problem. No longer is the organisation concerned with the preservation of its old position, but it must concern itself with maintaining its new position. Often the new position is sold as protecting and strengthening the old position, the core set of concerns. But the energy that was available to the old set of concerns very often starts to decrease, and the new area soaks it up. And so you have situations where the universities once set up to educate students eventually find themselves seeking massive amounts of funds in order to become or sustain themselves as centres of research, which was never really the point of them in the first place. Harvard and Yale and Oxford should not be DARPAs that happen to offer degrees to 22-year-olds.
And so eventually, what the primary focus that expansion was justified in order to protect or strengthen gets lost or abandoned in the surge for more and more power. But this leaves a hole in the heart of the organisation. “What now do we exist to do?” If the answer is to seek power then there is a profound moral sickness present in that organisation. It also leaves a weakness, a hole in the armour, that can now be exploited by enemies. With no focus the organisation goes from being expert in one field to a master in none.
So when we look at maps of the Ottoman Empire, it's surprising that states like Romania and Bulgaria could emerge, although admittedly with the help of another Empire, Russia. Or that Rome, covering the entirety of the Mediterranean, could fall to Germanic tribes. Until, that is, we learn what really is happening with those large portions of the map painted one colour or another.
So, like with my early example of seas, it’s easy for us to look at a map of a massive empire and think ‘this thing is unstoppable’, only to be entirely wrong about that. In fact, if history tells us anything, it's that the larger the Empire, the closer it is to being able to be pushed over.
Eriador, in maintaining two Kingdoms, and without looking to grow, maintained a vitality and focus that it would have lost had it tried to be an Empire.
Hobbits naturally understand this. We would much rather have a well-tended, productive garden than a sprawling unkempt wilderness. Woods are well and good to forage in, and every Hobbit, and freeman, has the right to roam and forage; it being a right endowed to him from his Creator (but I’ll save this for another time). But woods are not tended. They are left to do what they will, and Hobbits will come and skim a little off the top for themselves. A small garden, lovingly-tended to, is much more fulfilling an enterprise than fencing off masses of land that will go to waste.
The lesson is this: a small healthy kingdom is preferable to a large sickly empire. This illness is inevitable. There is no avoiding it. If one wants to see an Empire fall, one need only to wait. And at the moment, we seem to be doing a lot of waiting…
Now, while I wait, it’s time to plan the next counter-offensive against that mangy old avian.