Skip to comments.Tolkien's Power
Posted on 12/16/2001 2:46:09 PM PST by Anotherpundit
The hype is overwhelming. After fifty years and more of fan's dreaming and waiting, a director --Peter Jackson -- is finally putting film to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Stunningly, it even looks like he's doing a damn good job of it. The reviews so far range from the merely positive to the positively ecstatic; even bespectacled ivory-tower erudites, art-house cynics, and die-hard fans are voicing epoch-making praise. Comparisons with Spielberg and Lucas are falling short, it seems, and many critics find themselves reaching back to Harryhausen, bypassing Harry Potter or Star Wars comparisons to draw parallels with films like Gone with the Wind, King Kong, or even Citizen Kane. Even Burger King has reported four point five million hits on the website for its tie-in movie gimmickry; the internet movie database already ranks The Fellowship of the Ring as the greatest fantasy movie of all time, with over a thousand users submitting rankings -- despite the fact that the movie has yet to even be released.
"Small wonder, then," as Tolkien himself once pointed out, "that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men." It is interesting that what is perhaps the greatest story of the twentieth century, and one set some seventy centuries in the past, should have such power over the living men of the twenty-first; most interesting, perhaps, since Tolkien's work has as its heart the problems of power, especially those kinds of powers that sway the hearts of men. Saruman's voice; the fear-aura of the Nazgul, the drilling terror of Sauron's glaring Eye; the Ring's "power of Command" -- these are the powers of Power, in Tolkien's cosmology; power to sway, to dominate, to rule.
Yet note who wields them; without exception, these powers are wielded by the forces of darkness, of evil. While good has power, it is of a different kind; Gandalf's power to inspire, Aragorn's powerful arm to defend, the hobbit's powerful will to resist, these are all defensive; evil, it seems, is to be found not only in power, but in aggression, in taking dominance over others. This is the evil of the Ring, that controls its owners; this is the evil of Saruman, who sways men to work against each other for his own gain; and this is the evil of Sauron, who with his sorceries and armies seeks to bring all middle-earth under his sway.
This split is not only found among the powers of magic, either. Tolkien divides up his worldly powers in the same fashion -- his villains seek power over others, his heroes seek to be free of it. The hobbits of the Shire, Tolkien's pastoral ideal, barely even have a government at all: as Tolkien writes in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, "the only real official in the Shire at this date was the Mayor . . . almost his only duty was to preside at banquets, given on the Shire-holidays, which occurred at frequent intervals." Of governmental force, there is even less; only the Shirriffs, who were "in practice rather haywards than policemen, more concerned with the strayings of beasts than of people." While Sauron and Saruman are sending out their armed hordes to conquer kingdoms, the by-right ruler of the western kingdoms is wondering if he should even show up to claim his title. His ancestry hasn't, for fourteen generations, despite being the rightful line of kingship -- preferring, rather, in a sort of anarchist's monarchy, to wander around in the wilderness defending those who needed it (including, often, the innocent inhabitants of the Shire) without taking on, or even asking for, the powers and responsibilities of a crown. If "that government is best that governs least," then truly, in Tolkien's world, the best rule and govern not at all; they merely defend.
It is not hard to see why, or at least part of why. Tolkien began his work during the first Great War of the twentieth century, and finished it during the second; he needed no further tutor in the evils of aggressive power, of the overweening rule of might. Tolkien stated that his own politics "lean[ed] more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control, not whiskered me with bombs)," and it is not to be wondered at; his work reflects his century, and the twentieth was a century where the horrors of totalitarian power and overweening lust to rule, split the globe in half, enslaved millions, murdered millions more, and sent yet more millions to their deaths. In the twentieth century, more than sixty-five million people were slain by their own governments alone, not counting the Great Wars, or the million lesser evils short of death to which the great totalitarian states of the twentieth century subjected their populaces.
Not that the Lord of the Rings is in any way "about" power, or the use and disuse of power, or of government and ruling; one of the chief masteries of Tolkien's work is that it stands, as a thing in itself, and is no more "about" anything than a mountain is, or a river, or a bird. There is a ring of truth to the tale; it is for many impossible to read without at least half-believing that it is not fiction, but a true history, cobbled together from manuscripts and fragments to which only Tolkien was privy. And one of the reasons for this, perhaps, is that it has true insights; true themes and ideals and dreams, wrapped in a cloak of fiction. There is no need to explain why the Ring corrupts, why Saruman's aggression is evil, why Sauron must be destroyed; the audience knows, intuitively, why any attempt to rule over the Hobbits would be unjust and wrong. These truths are, it may be said, self-evident.
It was a perfect illustration of liberalism at work---an irrelevant cheap shot and a nasty, petty pretension to moral superiority.
See also: Is fantasy just for kids?
I'm guessing he didn't like the movie. I remember that when Starship Troopers came out, liberal reviewers were in apoplectic fits over Heinlein's story for much the same reason, substituting "fascist" for "monarchist."
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