5.1.03


SOMETHING DEEP

I’m glad to see that my friend Tom G. Palmer agrees with me about the relative merits of the new Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies. Two Towers good, Chamber of Secrets bad.

Which reminds me. I was going to defend the proposition that Tolkien was on to something deep—something that transcends mere politics.

So here goes.

First, let’s return (for a moment) to the issue of Tolkien’s alleged racism. If you do a Google search on “Tolkien Racism” you will come up with more than 5,000 hits—so this would seem to be a going concern.

But it’s a mistaken concern—unless you’re worried about anti-German racism. For the bad guys in The Lord of the Rings are, quite obviously, Germans. The First World War was a formative influence in Tolkien’s life. Black Africa (despite his South African origins) was not. The aggressive, regimented, machinery-loving Orcs have much in common with stereotypical Huns and little in common with stereotypical Africans. End of story.

So why are the Orcs so often “black?” Because that is the traditional color of evil, dummy! Should Tolkien have made them orange, instead? Please keep in mind that he was not living in the age of dopey P.C. It would never have occurred to him that anyone would think he was out to stigmatize sub-Saharan Africans. He had other, and bigger, fish to fry.

What about the “Southrons?”

(a) In World War I, The Ottoman Empire allied itself with the Central Powers.

(b) Tolkien consistently treats his proto-Arabs as innocent dupes, worthy of sympathy.

So, to conclude, if you must read real life back into Tolkien’s story, against his wishes, it should be the First World War—not British colonialism, imperialism, and racism.

But, as Hannibal Lecter would say: “that is incidental.”

A more to-the-point criticism of Tolkien would be that his moral—as opposed to racial—landscape is too black and white. It’s not that he’s racist—it’s that he’s simplistic. The good guys are perfectly good, the bad guys are perfectly awful, and there’s nothing and nobody in between.

This feeds into the penny-in-the-slot charge that The Lord of the Rings is merely an overgrown exercise in cheap “escapism.” It offers its readers an easy escape from the real world of moral doubt and complexity into a fantasy land of comforting certainty. The worry is that naïve readers might try to import that comforting certainty back into the real world, with potentially disastrous consequences—viz., certain conservatives who look at Iraq and see Mordor.

(Or is that Morrrrrdor?)

In short, doubters will think that Tolkien’s “secondary creation” feeds into something crude and retrograde in our nature that ought to be discouraged.

This objection is not just incidental. Unlike the charge of racism, it at least takes note of a genuine and significant feature of the book: the lack of moral ambiguity. Nevertheless, qua objection, it’s mistaken.

To understand why, let’s go back for a moment to the Harry Potter stories—which really are, so far as I can tell, exercises in escapism, pure and simple.

Harry quite literally “escapes” an annoying set of relatives through the sudden and unexpected discovery of magical powers. Any reasonably intelligent and sensitive young person will identify with him. Who hasn’t daydreamed of such an escape? It’s part and parcel of being a kid. The Harry Potter books shamelessly cater to that innocent wish.

True, there are dangers for Harry to face in his new life. But unlike his foster family, they’re lively and colorful, and he can always count on the powers necessary to face them showing up at just the right moment. All perfectly harmless—and all kid’s stuff. (If it weren’t just kid’s stuff, it wouldn’t be perfectly harmless anymore.)

Now compare Frodo’s situation. Through pure luck, he, too, unexpectedly stumbles on magical powers (not in himself, but in the ring). But there the similarities end. For Frodo’s bit of luck is not good, but bad. Disastrously bad. The ring does not save him from everyday life—it robs him of it. It thrusts him suddenly into the burdensome world of moral responsibility. It demands that he give up everything he cares about to do his duty. Can he do it? Will he do it? Can or will anyone ever do the right thing, simply because it is the right thing, when deprived of any possible personal interest in doing it?

Everything in Frodo’s story is calculated to point this problem as acutely as possible. The stakes are large (saving the world, more or less) but Frodo’s chances are small (he has only a “fool’s hope” of success). His path will be long and painful and will test his rather ordinary physical and emotional capacities to their limits and beyond. Even if he succeeds, the attempt will almost certainly cost him his life. At the end, there will be no glory. No yachts or dancing girls. No heavenly reward. So he must save the world, but not for himself. He can’t palm the job off on someone else, because no one else is either willing or better able to do it. (Some are all too ready to take the ring—but not to destroy it). It’s almost cruel the way Tolkien paints him into the corner. The author makes his duty perfectly clear, but systematically deprives him of any selfish motive for doing it.

Now this is an interesting moral situation. In fact, it might be the most interesting moral situation there is. (Immanuel Kant seems to have thought so.) It is the heart of Tolkien’s story—and there is nothing simplistic about his treatment of it. On the contrary: his portrayal of Frodo’s response to the moral challenge that confronts him is both subtle and plausible. It is also quite ambiguous. In the end, does Frodo do his duty or not? This is not an easy question to answer.

To introduce shades of moral gray into the representation of the orcs or the elves would merely cloud the issue. Frodo’s duty must be unambiguous. If Sauron had legitimate grievances, or if Aragorn were merely an imperialist war-monger, the focus would shift from ethics to epistemology: from “how do I do what’s right?” to “how do I know what’s right?” The latter may be an interesting issue—but it is not Tolkien’s issue. Why should it be?

I suppose one could still make out a case that the book is “escapist.” But if so, it’s escapism of a peculiar sort. While the Harry Potter books appeal to the childish desire to be somebody special, The Lord of the Rings appeals to almost the opposite desire: the desire for commitment to a cause greater than oneself. Perhaps that is why it seems to make its strongest appeal to adolescents, the best of whom are highly susceptible to a longing for moral commitment.

Maybe that longing is merely another form of escapism—and a potentially dangerous one at that. Historically minded adults have every reason to view it with suspicion.

And yet, there’s good in it. Isn’t there?