Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Roland Boer and The Lord of the Rings

Roland Boer objects to using The Lord of the Rings as the basis for a political model, and who can possibly disagree with him? But he "sums up" Tolkien's classic for those unfamiliar with it, and mostly inaccurately. He writes:
"For those not familiar with this boring fable, it is an elaborate and multilayered allegory of the Second World War (during which much of it was written), of the evils of capitalism and industrialisation, of Roman Catholic enchantment versus Protestant worldliness, of the passing world of the Middle Ages etc. And it’s whole framework is deeply conservative,which I'll define here as the desire to return to a mythical golden age that never existed."
Let's take these points in turn.

(1) The greatest story ever told is hardly boring, but, well, there's no accounting for taste.

(2) The Lord of the Rings is emphatically not an allegory of WWII. That's a dated argument not accepted by any recent Tolkien scholar I've read. Not only did Tolkien express his fervent dislike for allegory in the preface, he began writing the story long before 1939. WWII allegory just doesn't play out in the text on any substantive level. (If the Ring = nuclear weapons, for instance, then the Ring would have been seized and used against the forces of evil instead of destroyed; if Sauron's forces = the Axis, they would have been occupied rather than annihilated; etc.) That's not to say Tolkien didn't incorporate some of his own experiences of war (he served as a soldier in the first world war) -- as seen, for instance, in "The Scouring of the Shire" chapter -- but definitely no allegory.

(3) Regarding the evils of capitalism and industrialization, Roland is basically right. Tolkien lamented these "evils" to the point that some even accused him of being a closet fascist. Actually he was anarchist -- anarchy in the sense of unconstitutional monarchy, or monarchy at a distance.

(4) Of Roman Catholic enchantment vs. Protestant worldliness, Roland is right, but this needs careful qualification. The Lord of the Rings is neither an allegory nor metaphor for any kind of Christianity. It anticipates Christianity without encompassing it, on which see (6) below. Middle-Earth is pagan, though pre-Christian pagan, and of course the "right" form of Christianity it anticipates is Catholicism.

(5) The Lord of the Rings isn't about "the passing of the middle ages", as Roland claims. It's about the passing of a fictional Third Age, and the dawning of the age of men (humanity), which sets the stage for our own history. Tolkien wrote his story as a mythic pre-history, meaning that Middle-Earth represents Europe in a long distant past. There's no more geographic allegory than political. Middle-Earth was Europe, and long before the middle ages.

(6) The framework of the story is definitely conservative, as Roland claims, but it doesn't express a desire to return to a mythic golden age. Just the opposite. In Tolkien's Catholic view, pagan Middle-Earth shows the need to look forward -- to Christianity -- without which, our own history would simply be a "long defeat" repeating Middle-Earth's hopeless struggle against evil (despite occasional victories against such, or "euchatastrophes" as Tolkien called them). Tolkien intended his story to be "consonant with Christian thought and belief" (letter #269), but he made clear that the actual appearance or presence of the Christian myth in his work would be "fatal" (letter #131). There's almost no allusion to Christianity anywhere in The Lord of the Rings, and when Christian themes occasionally resonate, they do so, again, on an anticipatory level.

The implications of (6) are the least appreciated among Tolkien scholars. The renewed monarchy ushered in by Aragorn doesn't represent a golden age, but the opposite, pointing to the foreordained and imminent deterioration of men (as Tolkien confided in letter #256). Aragorn couldn't save Middle-Earth as a king anymore than Frodo could resist the Ring. Neither were salvific figures. They were hopeless, pagan heroes demonstrating the need for something better -- or at least, that's how Tolkien conceived them.

[Also see: The Unhappy Ending to The Lord of the Rings.]

UPDATE: Follow up to this discussion here.


Anonymous roland said...

Loren, thanks for the long response. I have replied over at my blog, but one additional point: the author's efforts to steer interpretation by explaining his 'intentions' should subjected to the strongest ideological suspicion.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks for the reply, Roland. With regards to the following advice:

The author's efforts to steer interpretation by explaining his 'intentions' should subjected to the strongest ideological suspicion.

Actually, they should be subjected to the text itself. Does Lord of the Rings hold up to Tolkien’s claims about it? It does.

Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

It's just an impression, and with all due respect to Roland, but my sense is that anyone who thinks the LOTR is "boring" is unlikely to have put in the requisite effort to come up with an informed, imaginative, and interesting interpretation of the LOTR.

Anonymous roland said...

More response here:

Anonymous roland said...

Ah, but Stephen, boredom is one of the most interesting of aesthetic responses.

Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

Touché, Roland. I'll withdraw the word "interesting" from my criticism.

Blogger Jason A. Staples said...

C.S. Lewis talked about how the "Ring of Power" was in no way related to the atom bomb, etc.; he even alludes to the origins of this Ring in The Great Divorce (capitalizing "Ring," despite the LOTR not having yet been published). Tolkien's opinion of what he was thinking and intending to represent by the ring most certainly does matter, too...


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