A story for our times

Les mondes fantastiques

A story for our times

Messagepar Aventia » 01 Mai 2011 21:26

A story for our times
A story for our times(Editorial from the Tinuviel.ch-Website May 1. 2004) - Written before the report of the tortur of irakian prisonners.

"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 has been brought to the screen. The good news is that, by the end of it, I have the distinct impression the world will know a great deal about much that has been lost – and can yet be regained.

It has been many years since I first read Tolkien's trilogy. It was 1986 and a friend brought me the trilogy when I was in the hospital. Like many kids of that era, I became so enraptured by the famous fantasy trilogy that I read it through to the end in just a few nights. From my window I saw a green field surrounded by the blazing colors of the Canadian autumn – it looked like a scene out of Middle Earth. This 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" Catholic 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, which was 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 wrote in a letter to Mandell Creighton, Bishop of London, in the 19th 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 fawn with hairy feet and diminutive statures, 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 and 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 are more ordinary than the unlikely hero of Tolkien's epic novel, Frodo Baggins, who represents the race of hobbits in their curious combination of bourgeois virtues circa the turn of the last century. These include steadfastness, a 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. They generally represent the way the middle and even the lower classes viewed the world 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.

Conversely, the bad guys 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 Tolkien 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, as was 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." This 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 in this scene giving a more profound insight, which was 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: its love of power, its lust for domination, its 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, with its power to control the others.

The Lord of the Rings is a mighty cultural counterforce to the American drive toward Empire, which today seems all but inevitable. For the past decade or so, or since the end of the Cold War, theoreticians of "national greatness conservatism" have been telling their people that they ought to establish a world empire. In the wake of September 11th, we have witnessed born-again imperialists like Mark Steyn and neo-conservative writers 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 comes to resemble Mordor.
There is one scene in the movie when a council of good guys is convened at Rivendell, the ethereally gorgeous realm of the Elves. This scene underscores the libertarian theme of the Tolkien trilogy. There is a debate between the heirs of Gondor – the Men – and the Elves about whether or not to use the One Ring against Sauron, to thus turn his own weapon on its creator. "But why shouldn't we use Sauron's own power against him?"

"No!" cries Gandalf, who had 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 that essentially, 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 – that must be destroyed if Men – and Hobbits, Elves and Dwarves – are to live in peace.

And that about says it all, now doesn't it?
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