Saturday, February 28, 2004

The Foreshadows of the Past

In the forward to the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1968), J.R.R. Tolkien warned his readers not to look too deeply into his writings for hidden messages – there were none of a conscious nature.

As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches; but its main theme was settled from the outset by the inevitable choice of the Ring as the link between it and The Hobbit. The crucial chapter, ‘The Shadow of the Past’, is one of the oldest parts of the tale. It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.

Regardless of Tolkien’s admonition, readers and critics have been seeing allegory and parallels to real history, usually applicable to the time period in which they are reading and critiquing, since the day the books were published. In the 1950’s the story was about Hitler and the rise and fall of the Third Reich, followed by the paranoia and scouring of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. When the books were published in paperback, the flower children latched on to it as a testimony against the military/industrial complex and an appeal to return to simpler things. (As a result, there were a lot of communes dotting the countryside named “Rivendell” and “Lothlorien,” and I’m willing to bet there are quite a few people in their thirties named Frodo, Bilbo, or Arwen.) Now with the huge success of the Peter Jackson-directed series of films, the trilogy is taking on deeper meaning to the current world situation with roles re-cast by bloggers and pundits.

While it is wise to remember what Tolkien said about the dangers of reading too much into the story, there is no doubt that the author had no qualms about readers taking his tales to heart and applying them as lessons to the particular time in which they lived regardless of the political or social movements of the time in which either the books were written or the reader was reading them. And it opens the work up to a variety of interpretations yet again.

When the book’s original paperback editions became campus bestsellers in the 1960s, conservatives wrote it off as hippie-dippie pablum, an incense-scented ur-text of the New Age movement. Religious conservatives were suspicious of the book’s popularity with rock groups like Led Zeppelin, and its connection to the seminal role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. But what a difference a generation makes! With “The Lord of the Rings” firmly ensconced in popular culture, Catholic theologians and evangelical activists alike are trumpeting the book’s hidden Christian messages. As for the pundits, their successors are happy to claim a story in which good has blue eyes and resides in the West, while evil lives due east and has a really bad complexion. How’s that for moral clarity?

It’s true that Tolkien’s personal politics placed him closer to the conservative line than anything else. The counterculture’s early embrace of Tolkien was always comically inapt, though the sight of Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Gray enjoying “the finest weed in the valley” can still draw sniggers in the theater. But right-wingers may want to undergo a long-overdue round of soul searching before they lay claim to Middle-earth. In fact, they might be better off giving Tolkien back to the hippies. Unlike, say, “Atlas Shrugged,” “The Lord of the Rings” makes for a double-edged weapon in today’s culture wars. (“Who’s Sauron – bin Laden or Bush?” by Stephen Hart, Salon.com, 2/28/04)

Like all good tales, The Lord of the Rings comes full circle. It begins in the bucolic countryside of The Shire, redolent of gardens, flowers, and Ralph Vaughn-Williams themes playing in the background, and after all the adventures of the hobbits, including saving the world as they knew it and restoring peace in a far-away kingdom, they return to home, hearth, and ale. Tolkien appreciated this quiet live-and-let-live world, and it is a theme that appears in his other works as well – the dying words of the dwarf Thorin in The Hobbit are, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” So those conservatives today who would see The Lord of the Rings as a triumph of Western Civilization over the forces of evil (depicted by some of them as militant Islam) perhaps should remember that the lesson is not about accumulation of wealth and power as a symbol of good, and that the most dangerous character in the story is not Sauron but Gollum.

Contemporary conservatives, by contrast, are very much enamored of power — indeed, it is hard to imagine any other way to define them. Certainly none of the qualities that used to typify conservatives — fiscal prudence, limits on spending and checks against the spread of government power — can be found in the Republican-run halls of power. All of which should make Gollum, the river-dwelling hobbit who becomes entranced by the Ring of Power and pays for it with his soul, an ominous metaphor. He never hesitates to exploit a wedge issue, be it Frodo’s trust of Sam or the distribution of lembas bread, and is savage in combat until defeated, at which point he whines endlessly about how unfair it all is.(ibid)

Tolkien was wise to distance his story and himself from allegory, either intentional or otherwise. By doing so the tale becomes a classic – something that survives the era in which it was crafted and still defines itself in the terms of the time. What was important seventy – or a hundred, or five hundred – years ago is still important today. And each generation takes the lessons from it. To some it was Christ or Satan, Hitler or Churchill, Vietnam or Nixon. Today it is Bush or bin Laden. Either way, the story lives on and that, speaking from an author’s point of view, is all that matters.