Sunday | January 05, 2003
Ring of Truth?
I went to see The Two Towers last night, and I enjoyed it immensely – although not quite as much as the first Lord of the Rings movie, for esthetic reasons I won’t bother with here.
My real problem with the movie -- the one I do want to talk about -- is political, and it applies to the entire Lord of the Rings saga. As much as I love and admire Tolkien’s books, and Peter Jackson’s brilliant adaptations, I think it’s probably unfortunate these particular stories are being re-injected into the popular culture at this particular moment in history.
My fears were best captured in a single scene from The Two Towers, in which the traitorous and lecherous Grima Wormtongue accuses one of King Theoden’s bravest soldiers of being a "warmonger." This at a time when the foul orc brigades of the evil wizard Saruman are overrunning Theoden’s kingdom.
The scene is unquestionably effective – and true to the spirit, if not the precise text, of Tolkien’s original. But it also comes dangerously close to an Ann Coulter view of the world, in which anyone who seeks to avoid war is, by definition, either a traitor, a terrorist stooge, or both.
The entire Lord of the Rings saga can – and has been – interpreted the same way: As a parable for our times, a mythic lesson in the virtue and necessity of moral clarity in the face of evil.
And that is wrong: wrong and ignorant and, yes, in its own way, evil -- or at least an open invitation to evil. Because this isn’t Middle Earth. Our enemies are human beings, not subhuman orcs. George W. Bush isn’t Aragorn son of Arathorn. Osama bin Ladin isn’t the Dark Lord Sauron, and neither is Saddam Hussein.
But I don’t know if our culture – or, as Aragorn might put it, "our peeepul" – can still recognize the boundary between fantasy and reality. So much of what we say, do, believe and expect has been shaped by the entertainment industry, I don’t know if we’re capable of seeing the world as it really is, instead of as we would like it to be.
This is a very dangerous position for the world’s only superpower to be in, because there are people at the top who suffer under no such illusions, but who would be quite happy to let us believe we’re waging holy war against the forces of absolute evil, if that’s what it takes to advance their policy agenda.
The Lord of the Rings has always been a political touchstone of sorts. Written in the 1940s, first published in the mid-1950s, the books were immediately seized upon by those who wanted (depending on their ideological bent) to see Sauron as a fictionalized Hitler or Stalin.
Tolkien always vehemently denied he meant anything of the sort, and I believe him. Of course, it’s hard to imagine World War II didn’t influence his writing in some way. The dark and desperate atmosphere of the books probably owed something to the period of Dunkirk and the Blitz, when it looked like Britain might lose. And the coda, when Frodo returns to find his beloved Shire overrun with "shirrifs and sharers," almost certainly reflected Tolkien’s bleak view of Britain’s post-war Labor government. But the true historical template for The Lord of the Rings actually lies more than a thousand years in the past.
Tolkien was a medievalist, a professor of English literature at Oxford, specializing in the Anglo-Saxon period. His ambition was to write a modern-day saga to rival the epic tales of the Middle Ages, the era of Beowulf and Die Niebelungen – the folk legends that became the basis for Wagner’s operas.
Tolkien’s history of the Third Age of Middle Earth – a back story only hinted at in the movies – sets the scene.
It is the story of twin kingdoms – Arnor and Gondor – founded by powerful ancestors, the Dunadein, who fled the destruction of an ancient realm across the sea, just as Rome’s mythic founder, Aeneas, fled the burning of Troy. But after centuries of greatness, Arnor has fallen, leaving Gondor to fight on alone against the forces of Mordor and the savage hordes of the eastern lands.
This is Europe, circa 700 AD. The Western Roman Empire has fallen, though memories of its splendor still linger. The Eastern Roman Empire (later known as Byzantium) lives on, fighting a desperate war for survival against a new and rising power from the east: Islam.
A dark and dangerous age; the faded glory of a fallen empire; a titanic struggle against an implacable enemy: this is the stuff great epics are made of. Even the name "Sauron" has a familiar (forgive the pun) ring to it. It sounds more than a bit like "Saracen," the medieval term for an Arab.
I don’t really know if Tolkien consciously patterned his War of the Ring on the struggle against Islam. But the reality of that struggle – which lasted for almost a thousand years – is woven deep in the fabric of medieval European literature: from the Song of Roland, to the Legend of El Cid, to the heroic tales of Richard the Lionhearted. Indeed, it’s hard to underestimate the degree of evil the Saracens represented to the medieval Christian mind: not so much because of the racial and cultural divides, but because Islam was viewed a particularly foul brand of heresy – an abomination against God.
So when Gandalf speaks, as he often does, of "the men of the west," any 8th century European would have known exactly who he was talking about – and who the enemy was. It’s inherent in the genre.
This actually makes The Lord of the Rings more, not less, problematic than if it really was a 20th century parable about totalitarianism.
There is a real danger our limited struggle against terrorism will turn into an open-ended war against Islam. Already, Al Qaeda’s most effective rallying cry against us is that we are "the new crusaders." But there isn’t anything new about the mythic world view of The Lord of the Rings. It’s the ideology of the original crusades. And there are plenty on our side who would like nothing better.
Fighting a crusade against orcs would be easy, morally speaking: They’re monstrous, subhuman – the original "mud people." Hack them, burn them, exterminate them like rats, what difference does it make? They’re vermin.
But fighting a holy war against other human beings -- well, that gets tricky. How far do we want to go, treating our enemies as the embodiment of pure evil? Just how much moral "clarity" can we allow ourselves?
When the crusaders finally captured Jerusalem, in the summer of 1099, they proceeded to slaughter as many of the city’s Muslims – and Jews – as they could lay their hands on. Men and women, children and little babies. Then, weeping, their hands still dripping with blood, they filed into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to give thanks to God for their victory over the infidels. They had moral clarity.
Epic sagas make fine movies. They satisfy our need for adventure, for heros and – most of all – for a world in which good is good, evil is evil and everybody knows the difference.
Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. Our world is full of moral ambiguity and self-deception, half-truths and lesser evils. Sometimes war is necessary, even just. Sometimes it’s just . . . war mongering. We need the moral sense to understand the difference. Mythology won’t get us there.