Monsters to Destroy

The Lord of the Rings and
"The Lord of the Rings"

Orcs, elves, and government
Part one


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It is a miracle that the "Lord of the Rings" films actually got made, and it is remarkable that they became such a global phenomenon. In this age of omnipotent government, thought police, and ubiquitous socialism, that so many could so enthusiastically embrace J.R.R. Tolkien's ultimate rebellion against modernity must testify to a powerful sentiment for liberty in the world, suppressed though it may be.

True, Peter Jackson's films differ somewhat from Tolkien's epic. Some changes were inevitable, such as scrapping the parallel narrative of The Two Towers and The Return of the King in favor of simultaneous storytelling. Though it is helpful in fully comprehending the land, mythology, and characters, the lengthy exposition in the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring was mercifully omitted. Jackson did make concessions to modernity, if not quite postmodernism [*], by altering some characters slightly, as we will see, though he abandoned some of the more egregious changes after fans protested.

Good vs. Evil

The Lord of the Rings is profoundly a Christian story: it features redemption, sacrifice, and rejection of evil, even as it does not specifically refer to Christianity. Indeed, it is far more Christian in its themes and values than many of today's works that aggressively advertise their purported Christianity but fail to live up to its principles. It is worth mentioning that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, who helped bring C.S. Lewis to the Christian faith (Anglicanism in Lewis's case). Tolkien belonged to that last great European generation that largely perished on the muddy fields of the tragic civilizational suicide known as the Great War. Having survived what became an entirely meaningless mass slaughter, Tolkien found himself in a changed world, where values of old were no longer and the march of modernity threatened new bloodshed (which occurred shortly thereafter). He lamented those better times — and though it was by no means an ideal civilization, it is hard to argue that antebellum Europe was worse than the 20th-century nightmare of communism, fascism, and total war that succeeded it. Tolkien's lamentation and longing are reflected in The Lord of the Rings, especially in the coda to the last book. But more on that later.

Peter Jackson's cinematic version of the trilogy seems, at times, more like a reflection on World War Two than on the Great War; and some have even chosen to interpret it in view of today's perpetual "war on terror." Perhaps that was the price Jackson had to pay to make the films; or perhaps the filmmaker deliberately twisted Tolkien's rather straightforward meaning in order to appeal to postmodern sensibilities. In either case, the departures detract from the epic quality of the story. The uninitiated will be tempted to interpret Jackson's version as a call to arms against enemies of civilization (i.e. "them"), given the reduction of the conflict to a war against hordes of evil Orcs who seek to physically extinguish humanity. But Tolkien's story is still there, telling of a threat to all of Middle Earth posed by the power-hungry and evil Sauron, Lord of the Rings, who seeks not to annihilate but rather to corrupt anything that stands in his way. Sauron is a convenient external manifestation of the Enemy, but the underlying thread in the epic is that the real danger is the desire for power; that is what makes Sauron evil, and that is what corrupts so many others.

Misunderstanding of Tolkien's work in a postmodern context is not new. Many have mistaken The Lord of the Rings for an allegory of World War Two, since it was published in the 1950s. However, Tolkien himself categorically rejected any such allegorical interpretations. By the time it was published, The Lord of the Rings was already an anachronism, a remnant of old days in a decidedly postmodern time. Two major world wars, the death of millions, and the societal upheaval propelled by an explosion of government power had transformed the West of Tolkien's youth into what must have seemed to him like an empire of Mordor. In that old world, swept away by war, to be good had meant to be virtuous, and evil had been an enemy within. By the 1950s, virtue was all but forgotten, while evil was projected onto others.

Certainly, one reason millions have embraced the books over the past 40 years is that they have harbored a secret (or not-so-secret) nostalgia for the better days before. Of course, others have completely misinterpreted Tolkien's message, exploiting his metaphorical myth to create, and consume, a series of pulp fantasies that involve endless but ultimately meaningless adventures of characters ridden with present-day sensibilities, or lacking any recognizable sensibilities. In that way, they have sought to turn Tolkien's assault on the 20th century into a mockery, in much the same way as creeping fascists kidnapped Orwell's portrayal of totalitarianism (in 1984), proudly exclaiming that it "can't happen here" because Winston Smith's world differed in so many details from the dark world they were busily building. The details, of course, pale in significance in light of the principles they represent, but that distinction is often lost on befuddled postmodern Westerners: "post-Westerners," if you will.

Messages of liberty

Two of Jackson's departures from the original do suggest the insertion of postmodern sensibilities into a work that was better off without them. In the books, Hobbits normally are folk who mind their own business; they are friendly but wary of strangers, and not at all keen on trouble. Now, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry are exceptions: they crave adventure — the kind Uncle Bilbo talks about, featuring dragons and goblins and gold. However much Jackson identifies with Hobbits, he somehow casts their noninterference with others as a bad thing, especially in view of the threat of his "imperialist" Sauron. Jackson's wisest Hobbits are interventionists; there is a scene in his "Two Towers" where Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck even beseeches the treelike Ents to "do something" about the menace of treacherous wizard Saruman — an exclamation eerily reminiscent of that of contemporary interventionists whenever they try to drum up support for bombing a country half the world away. The cinematic Ents refuse to interfere in a war not their own, until they witness the destruction wrought upon their beloved forest by the Orcs of Saruman, the treacherous wizard.

But in the book, the Ents already know of the destruction and decide to go to war against Saruman in defense of their homes — and, mind you, no further. Tolkien's message is quite clear: self-defense is the only justification for war. The Entmoot scene of Jackson's "Two Towers," however, frames a quaint provincialism on the part of Pippin ("We have the Shire!") against an "enlightened interventionism" on the part of Merry ("There won't be a Shire, Pip."). This didactic embrace of "do-somethingism," so alien to the source material, is almost vulgar.

Another departure from Tolkien is Jackson's characterization of Saruman. In the books, he is the wisest and most powerful of the Istari, the Wise, who were sent by the Valar (guardians of Middle Earth on behalf of Eru, the Creator) to counter the corruption of Sauron. Gandalf is another of these beings, who the appendices suggest are of the same order (the Maiar) as Sauron was before he turned to darkness. That is why Gandalf fears the One Ring and knows he would do great evil with it — he has benefited from Sauron's example. Saruman, on the other hand, has spent centuries studying the Rings and their power, and has become seduced by the lure of that power. In that, he resembles a government official who (let us imagine) started in his line of work with the noblest of intentions but after being exposed to power over the years began to covet it, and turned to corruption.

In the books, it is quite clear that although Sauron and Saruman have established a sort of alliance, Saruman clearly plots to seize the Ring himself. There is a passage in The Two Towers where Merry and Pippin become aware of that: a party of Orcs that captured them, composed both of those loyal to Sauron (The Eye) and those loyal to Saruman (the White Hand), erupt in argument over where to take the two Hobbits, Mordor or Saruman's stronghold of Isengard.

But in the films, for whatever reason, Saruman is no longer a "public servant" gone dark — he is an outright servant of Sauron. Saruman's evil plans, which in the books clearly aim to increase his own power, are recast simply as instructions from Sauron. That conveniently avoids the issue of Saruman's betrayal, which is still presented but is nowhere near as shocking. In Jackson's version Saruman is not an agent of good who made a choice to embrace evil; he is merely a pawn, albeit one with delusions of grandeur. A principal observation of Lord of the Rings is that different characters react differently to the lure of power the One Ring promises; thus, Jackson's reinterpretation changes Saruman's character considerably — while avoiding any unpleasant metaphor about the corrupting influence of power and government.

September 15, 2004

To be continued.

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* It is hard to define "postmodernism" because the postmodernists are such unprincipled folk that they can wiggle out of any definition and render it meaningless; they actually make a practice of it. "Modernism," as it was understood in the years following the Great War, is the condition of human affairs that led directly to fascism and communism — a combination of force-worship and rejection of civilization — while postmodernism is the state of things that obtained after 1945: an institutionalized hypocrisy that has paid lip service to civilization while practicing its modernist antitheses. That is the world we live in today, one that consistently misinterprets Tolkien's discourse because it is incapable of seeing it in the less jaded light of premodern European civilization.

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