At Christmas this year we will be treated once again to a film adaptation of a fantasy by Tolkien, this time The Hobbit. I am gratified because this author and his works form one foundation of the kind of person I have become, insofar as a book of fiction is fundamental to how one understands the world.
What is it about Tolkien that made him, according to one poll conducted in England during the 1990s, the people’s choice for “greatest fiction author in the English language of the 20th century”? How did he have such a profound impact on the baby-boom generation? And will it ever again be possible for one person to achieve, by publication of fiction, such a stature among readers?
To the last question I would offer an unqualified “No” – the world that Tolkien wrote for is gone, the cultural landmarks, once possible in an age before global electronic networks of communication, are vanished. No writer will ever again claim a mass audience, appealing to many generations and cultures (witness the many tongues into which Tolkien was translated) across the world through the medium of a book. Tolkien is more than a baby-boomer icon, but his success began when the counter-culture of my generation in the affluent West adopted him as a flag-bearer of its “values.” We had some instinctive identification with the Hobbits in the 1960s. Frodo stood against the Dark Lord, while we fought against the Viet Nam War, soulless capitalism, and the degradation of Nature. The hobbits’ Shire is eco-paradise. A book allows us to build private interior spaces for the exercise of personal imagination, and my Middle Earth is not like anyone else’s. Books do not dictate the visuals; they provoke your mind’s eye to see.
The film Star Wars had an attachment to our heartstrings for awhile, but film is not like literature for altering minds. Our culture now moves so rapidly through phases that even the Avatar phenomenon is a one-season wonder, a meteor across the cultural skies, gone with the next celebrated light somewhere else. Screens are 24/7 reality. Screens corral our mind-space: TV, computer, phone. The “fourth screen” is in our cars.
I hoped that Avatar might have culture-transforming power to alter Canada’s development mania. It did not. Our Prime Minister has read the public mind better than I. Full speed ahead, petro-jobs for all, damn the tree-huggers and green-freaks. In Canada, “unobtanium” (oil, water, trees, hydro) is our path to the affluence the middle class demands. We might weep for Nature inside a theatre; outside Avatar, our car smugly waits. It’s certain we will soon be at the wheel, pretending we have blue skin and drive a GPS-guided spaceship. Cars are part of us. Driving a car, we are, so it seems, powerful and free.
Tolkien was a relic of an age dying even as he published his trilogy in the 1950’s; then, a large majority of Canadians declared they were church-goers when surveyed. His own devout Roman Catholicism, imbued in him by a priest who cared for JRR and his younger brother, is a key part of the formation of Tolkien’s own consciousness as a writer, and so too is his love of philology, history, and England’s green and pleasant land. Tolkien belongs in the literary company of William Blake; I know that world, and its mind is long dead. I’m a teacher; I see the culture forming in schools now. It is radically unlike 1960.
There are more opportunities now to be read, to have one’s film or video or music seen and heard, than ever before, and there are multitudes producing material; in that way our age is supremely democratic. I alluded to this last column, in my remarks about the Kootenay Times Moonly Magazine and its writers.
The flip side of mass production of “creativity” in literature, visual and audio arts, is fragmentation. There is no “public” anymore; many social critics and academics say it every day in media where I find analysis of Culture. There are only publics. Some people vote -- and they are one of the publics, but hardly the one that determines politics in this or any other country. The ways and means to be political now are endlessly transforming. “The personal is political” is an old phrase with new meaning – due to the ubiquity of communication, it is possible to be politically active and effective and never vote or join in a party or fundraise for candidates or pay attention to formal political media yourself. Change can and will be effected not by the 20th Century type of Revolution, but by new forms still being born as I write this. I have bemoaned this new world, but I am learning to embrace it. Flow in the Tao, don’t fight it, but be authentic.
As culture is morphed, mutated, and fragmented into splinters, and poor suffering humanity seeks in all directions for ways out of the planetary crises converging on us, it is instructive to see how a book like Tolkien’s transformed minds. It was not because he pictured a beautiful future, but because he invented a deep mythological history, that his Hobbit tales got so profoundly enrooted in readers’ hearts and minds. He worked on our cultural senses exactly as any great book did. The Bible is the paradigm of a book that originated civilizations. If books cannot do that in 2012 -- cannot act as a matrix anymore -- what can?
Religion can. It still is doing that. Holy scriptures may not have the power books once had, but devout communities of believers can move whole societies when their members have cohesion in the midst of a mass of incoherent individuals. Religion is still one of the great collectivizing forces – even in our time when it is hard to see collectivism winning any struggles with extreme individualism, ego, atomism.
Religion also has a terrible reputation among Westerners just now. As I write this, the grossly brutal act by the Pakistani Taliban against a schoolgirl is the sensation of the week. Last month it was fury in Islamic lands against a pathetically-bad film about Mohammed that brought Western focus to religion and its evil effects. The UN has declared “respect for religious sentiment” is a “human right”. We do not yet have a cultural consensus about how to respect religion while resisting negative effects like patriarchal egoism.
And here is an interesting and little-remarked feature of Tolkien’s Middle Earth: there is no religion among the races of that world, the Elves, Men, Orcs, Hobbits, Dwarves. There is no belief system, no worship, no temples or churches, and no clergy. This is extremely odd in a world that is roughly-modelled on the economic order of medieval Europe. Tolkien decided not to include religion in world-views or cultures of his sentient species. What need for religion did men or elves have, when in reality the Dark Lord was a manifested Satan on earth? Sauron was evil, and his creatures and allies too. Tolkien’s Euro-Christian bias shows in his depiction of men from Khand and Harad, eastern and southern hordes that one could easily identify with medieval Islam, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols. The West and North are Tolkien’s lands of men and elves, ents, hobbits and dwarves – the stalwart opponents of darkness.
Being a Tolkien fan-addict myself, I read everything he wrote. I sought for a mysterious early work called The Silmarillion which is his creation myth, including a single god (Eru, the One) and sub-gods (Valar) and beings higher than human but less-than-divine, the Sindar, Noldar, Eldar, Maiar, and Istari. One of the Valar plays the role of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost; this great rebel against the One is Melkor/ Morgoth, who destroys the Two Trees with the help of a horrible monster, Ungoliant. Tolkien is never better when writing in his Rings tales about the past history of Middle Earth. Elves, men and other intelligent species know that Morgoth and the Valar are real and he writes no scenes with long speeches by his characters to tell their history, only poems and songs, tantalizing allusions to the heroes, villains, and places of the past: Earendil, Gothmog, Gondolin, Numenor. Of course, Middle Earth is this planet earth, our home, and it is as if the biblical stories about Adam, Abraham, Moses and King David were true. Only, instead of Satan being outside material, political reality, he builds a Mordor-hell on earth.
It makes one wonder if the world Tolkien portrays is like the world of Israelites in the time of the Assyrian Empire. The Israelites believed their scriptures as Aragorn, Gandalf and Frodo believe in Feanor’s reality.
What these meanders in my scribbling means, I’m not sure. I discern a dim outline of my preoccupations. Tolkien had a deep effect on my character, on my formation of ideals and values about what is important, and how to “nobly” fight wrongs. I was not alone in feeling that the Youth Movement against war and capitalism in the USA was somehow one with Frodo’s Quest. “Frodo Lives!” was a lapel button I saw a lot in the late ’60’s. It is easy to laugh at the styles and pretenses of a former decade --- bell-bottom pants, flowers in long hair, beads, peace-symbols on hippie vans – but under funny facades were serious purposes. Some youth meant to make a Revolution in the most violent of ways; in BC we witnessed the Squamish Five, a pale imitation of America’s Weather-Underground Army. Today the consensus about violence is, it is always wrong. Toronto’s G-20 Summit scenes upset us. Revolution, where people or property is damaged, is not the Canadian way. In 1968 things seemed less clear, as I recall the days.
This review of our recent historical past brings me to politics and the question of evil. Tolkien made evil so easy to see. White light accompanies goodness, and darkness, evil. If the world I live in were as lucidly-delineated as Middle Earth, I need never ask myself, “What people can we call ‘evil’?” I am asking myself and my friends this very question these days. One friend is sure, he replies. “Harper is evil.” Another is less sure about Harper, but says with conviction, “Dick Cheney is evil.” Such clarity is enviable.
I wonder, is it ever truly justifiable to call someone in politics by that adjective? In Tolkien’s world there is no doubt. Some men are bad and it’s easy to tell. King Theoden of Rohan seems to feel the pained ambiguity about “the right thing to do” that bedevils modern people; his noble warriors and followers have only to do as their king commands in order to feel they act rightly, by doing as their lord decides. This is the old warrior ethic, the fuhrerprinzip, “my-lord-right-or-wrong”. Lucky for the King he has Gandalf, a wizard of profoundly mysterious links to the powers of good and light, as his personal savior. In Middle Earth, I would not face the challenge of determining if it is right to call my prime minister an evil man, or merely blame a system – “capitalism” -- for making humans act evilly when they are not essentially bad. But this is the world I live in, this is the time I’m given. Choosing sides confronts me. Deciding is a real issue. It’s not one I avoid by living on the proverbial fence, my mind blithely unconscious of this reality.
Others seems okay being on that edge between, in the grey. They empathize with the world’s wretched and oppressed, they support all the right causes, but do not feel that taking the side of the poor requires them to change anything about their materialism. Yes, they own a lot of stuff, and yes, they want their money (saved for themselves and their family) to be secure, and yes, they deserve all they “worked for.” In privileged lives, bestowed upon them by their roles in the maintenance of capitalist normality, such people cannot see a way to be good all the time; 7 billion humans can’t all have what we do. We are caught in the fact of our history, the history that elevated the West over the Rest of the world in success measured by material things, healthy, well-fed lives, with educated, cultured, leisured, self-aware egos.
Tolkien has little to say about this kind of moral landscape. It’s grey, not white and black. We act badly when serving the money system -- good when giving to charity. Bad when over-consuming -- good when recycling. Canada sells oil; the petro-currency thrives. Harper knows our desire: keep things going…
But on one issue, taking life for any reason, Tolkien’s words deserve citation: “Many that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be so quick to deal out death to others.” I know no better way to state the truth that capital punishment is wrong. The Bible supports those who demand justice by killing killers; Tolkien is wiser than the writer of Deuteronomy as he lived a couple thousand years later. That gives modern humans an advantage. Long experience deepens consciousness of morality. Doesn’t it?
History is humanity’s experience. We learn from it. Or so I have been told. I wonder if it’s true.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of the Arc of the Cognizant can be found here.