December 24, 2001
"And thus the Third Age of Middle Earth began. History became legend, legend became myth and some things that should not have been forgotten … were lost."
With that prologue, J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novel, The Lord of the Rings, is brought to the screen and the good news is that, by the end of it, (this is the first part of a three-part series) I have the distinct impression the world will know a great deal about much that has been lost and can yet be regained. Although it takes place in a long ago time that never took place, it is truly a parable for our times, so much so that I would venture to put him up there with Orwell (and far above Aldous Huxley) as the most prescient of modern writers.
It has been many years since I first read Tolkien's trilogy. Like many kids of that era I guess it was around 1967 or so I was so enraptured by the famous fantasy trilogy that I read it through to the end in just a few sittings. Stretched out in a green field overlooking a New England wood ablaze with autumn it looked like a scene out of Middle Earth I literally couldn't put it down. Tolkien's "Middle Earth" a self-contained parallel universe, complete with its own geography, history, linguistics, and even music was a far more amenable place than the rather weird private academy in which my parents had enrolled me.
I much preferred a world of hobbits, elves, orcs, and dwarves to the very real mental dwarves who ran the not-so-"progressive" school I attended at the time. There are plenty of other "alternative" universes created by fantasy and science fiction writers Norman Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, the works of Lord Dunsany, etc. but none affected me quite the way Tolkien did. The story of the One Ring appealed to my libertarian ideological orientation, strong even back then. For The Lord of the Rings is a parable of power and its corrupting influence, a veritable dramatization of Lord Acton's famous axiom that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," as he put it in a letter to Mandell Creighton, bishop of London, sometime in the nineteenth century.
In that same letter he also said, less famously: "Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority" an observation that echoes the way Tolkien's characters embody this theme of the inherent evil of power. For just look at how he divides the bad guys from the good: the latter are embodied in the hobbits, a kind of Anglicized faun with hairy feet and a diminutive stature, the happy inhabitants of a sylvan glade known as The Shire.
If "great men" are almost always bad men, then ordinary men, or the even more ordinary hobbits who love order, regularity, and have a bourgeois fear of "adventures" or anything out of the ordinary are almost always good men (or hobbits, as it were). None is more ordinary than the unlikely hero of Tolkien's epic novel, Frodo Baggins, who represents the race of Hobbits in all their curious combination of bourgeois virtues, circa the turn of the last century, such as steadfastness, love of nature, perseverance, and a belief that people ought to be left to go about their business and (most importantly) their pleasure.
Hobbits have breakfast, and then they have a second breakfast, and a pre-lunch snack, and then a more formal luncheon, and then well, you get the picture. They enjoy their food, their beautiful Shire, and life in general, and generally represent the way the middle and even the lower classes viewed the world until 1914 and the coming of the Great War.
On another level of Tolkien's multi-layered parable-epic, we have the mysterious and much more austere Elves, the preservers of an ancient knowledge, whose appearance and culture seem more than human; that is, human in an idealized sense, Man as he might have been or will be in some benevolent future. Together with the few powerful wizards, who are human, they are the guardians of the West and protectors of the world of Men. But not all of them are as benevolent (and fumbling) as the chief of the Good Guys, Gandalf. While tall and rather imposing, as befits a wizard of such legendary power, Gandalf is rather affable, and even ordinary in many ways: for one thing, he has a sense of humor, and he often visits the Shire, where he is right at home.
The bad guys, on the other hand, are a singularly humorless lot, embodied in rival beings of an entirely different order. The Orcs, who are really degenerated Elves, are foul creatures, aligned with Sauron, the Evil One: their chief emotion seems to be bloodlust. They inhabit the Eastern regions of the Tolkienesque universe, in and around Mordor, the epicenter of evil. The dwarves are isolationists, whose underground world is a perfect setting for their obsessive pursuit of accumulating gold and other subterranean riches: they stand apart from the epic struggle, kind of like Switzerland -- but threatened, like the rest of Middle Earth, by the Dark Lord's growing influence.
Gandalf's dark counterpart, Saruman, is a good wizard gone bad, who sells out to Sauron and turns his wizardly domain, Isengard, into an industrial and military powerhouse. Saruman perverts his powers to produce a bigger and more fearsome variety of Orc, and tears up the formerly pastoral countryside to make way for belching factories of evil that darken the sky over a decimated moonscape. There is a scene in the movie, as Saruman takes a tour of the new facilities, where he orders his misshapen underlings to "pull up every tree," that perfectly expresses the ideology of the bad guys.
Sauron, Lord of Mordor, rules a volcanic land of utter desolation where no natural form of life could possibly survive. But rather than pushing some banal anti-industrialist, anti-capitalist, "green" point of view, Tolkien was making here a more profound insight: that evil is necessarily expansionist and must project itself everywhere: everything, even the landscape, is a mirror to it. The aesthetics of Mordor, and Isengard, reflect the inner state of their rulers.
Sauron, called the Dark Lord, is not just a symbol of evil, but a convincing character who embodies everything Tolkien hated about the modern world: it's love of power, it's lust for domination, it's sheer damned ugliness. Sauron is an obsessive nutball, whose love of power for its own sake is given physical form in the Ring of Power. Without going into all the details of Tolkien's beautifully complex mythology, the rulers of Middle Earth were each given rings of power, which contained within them the sovereignty and uniqueness of each and every race. But Sauron's love of power drove him to forge a super-ring, one with the power to control the others. Professor Tolkien, a linguist who taught at Oxford and was an expert on ancient Nordic poetry, sprinkled his tomes with the ancient poetry of Middle Earth, one of which told of Sauron's bid for supreme power:
"One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
This ring, cut off the hand of Sauron himself in a long ago battle against the king of mythic Gondor, is lost for centuries, and finally found by a dwarf named Smeagol, who promptly falls under its evil spell. For the ring enslaves those who wear it, since it contains Sauron's essence the sort of megalomania that, for instance, might have come up with a phrase such as "national greatness" to describe a school of thought. To put on the Ring automatically puts one in contact with Sauron, and, furthermore, attracts the attention of creatures known as Ringwraiths the enslaved former kings of earth, whose lust for power led them into the camp of Sauron. They pursue the One Ring relentlessly, constantly seeking to reunite it with its original owner and creator. For once Sauron gets his hands on the ring, he will have absolute power over Middle Earth.
There is a very effective scene in the movie, in which Frodo is shown the consequences if the Fellowship of the Ring fails in its quest to destroy the ring by flinging it into the fires of Mordor. In a magic mirror shown to him by the Elvish Queen, the Shire is destroyed in a blitzkrieg of Orcs, who pillage and burn it and drive the hobbits into pens, slaughtering and destroying everyone and everything in their path. The Shire is decimated, just as Saruman's Isengard was, not just industrialized but uglified, and life is organized around more "scientific" lines. It is a future world of fire and steel, where the gentle hobbits and everything beautiful and harmless have no place. It's forced "globalization" -- with a vengeance.
I am not qualified to comment on the acting, or the particular actors: having given up on the ability of American culture to entertain or edify at an early age, I haven't been to the movies since sometime in the 1970s. So when people tell me that these people are well-known actors, I take their word for it and move on. My only comment is that this ensemble doubtless read and understood the trilogy, because all seem to embody their characters to a remarkable degree. I especially liked Sir Ian McKellen, who brings the right mixture of majesty and humanity to the role of Gandalf. Elijah Wood as Frodo looks like a young hobbit, and for all his ephebic good looks I have the feeling he'll be considerably toughened by the end of the two remaining episodes.
Although the story line is necessarily abbreviated we are talking here about an adaptation of a three volume work of some 400 closely printed pages each the essential plot and the especially telling details have all been included, at least so far. This is a dramatization of the first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring, to be followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King. For the first time in many years I can't wait to go to the movies again….
If the next two installments live up to the promise of the first, then The Lord of the Rings is going to be a mighty cultural counterforce to the American drive toward Empire, which, today, seems all but inevitable. For the past decade or so, ever since the end of the Cold War, the theoreticians of "national greatness conservatism" (and their counterparts, the advocates of "national greatness liberalism") represented by the Weekly Standard and the New Republic, respectively have been telling us that we ought to establish a world empire, or at least act the part.
In the wake of 9/11, we have born-again imperialists like Mark Steyn, and the neoconservative cadre of writers who dominate the pages of National Review, declaring that now is the time to revive the theory and practice of colonialism, British-style, as a model for American foreign policy. Like Sauron, they pine for "one ring to rule them all" a "New World Order." The more the US asserts its role as the world's chief and only superpower, the more the city of Washington D.C., comes to resemble Mordor. Now when the neoconservatives start blithering about what Bill Kristol calls "benevolent global hegemony" as the guiding principle of American policy, I am reminded of Saruman, whose hubris was his undoing.
There is one scene in the movie when the council of the good guys is convened at Rivendell, the ethereally gorgeous realm of the Elves, that underscores the libertarian theme of the Tolkien trilogy. There is a debate, between the heirs of Gondor the Men and the Elves over whether to use the One Ring against Sauron, to turn his own weapon on its creator. "But why shouldn't we use Sauron's own power against him?" "No!" cries Gandalf, who has been listening to the argument with growing dismay. "You must never use it you cannot use it, or else you are lost." He goes on to explain, essentially, that one cannot use evil means to achieve a supposedly worthy end: the ends are the means. The One Ring is Sauron, for it is power or, perhaps, the love of power and that is what must be destroyed if Men and Hobbits, and Elves, and Dwarves are to live in peace.
And that about says it all, now doesn't it?
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