The Return of the King: Tolkien and the new medievalism

KA Dilday
18 December 2003

In the 1880s the lay anthropologist L.V. Helms, witnessing satya (sati) in Bali, recorded several reactions. As young, white-clad widows stepped delicately to their fiery deaths on a funeral pyre, Helms (as the professional anthropologist Clifford Geertz points out) not only felt moral horror but was torn by his aesthetic appreciation of the dramatic beauty of the pageant and his awe at the power of ritual over life.

It’s all in the eye of the beholder, the old adage says. And that is why politics and art have always had an uneasy relationship, although some would say they have none at all. Earlier this month in New York, the writers’ organisation PEN sponsored a panel with the expository title “Mind the Gap – writers eye the U.S.-European cultural divide”. The organisers had assembled a diverse lot of cosmopolitan writers – Tariq Ali, Ian Buruma, Jane Kramer, Bernard-Henri Levy, Peter Schneider, and Carles Torner to discuss a subject that is not easily definable: is it culture, literature, music, art?

On that night it was none of these. Although one panelist admitted that they had been asked to speak about books, most bit off big chunks of world politics in their opening comments and chewed fiercely for two hours, passing mouthfuls of Ariel Sharon and George Bush along the row. I heard scant words about books and nary a one about film, theatre or fine arts. As the debate escalated, I wondered: how much does the cultural divide between Europe and the United States have to do with whether one can dislike Ariel Sharon and not dislike Israel?

Even in tranquil times the definition shifts (culture is dynamic in practice as well as concept) but in times of war, the definition of culture is loaded with meaning: it is a way of setting your world apart from the enemy’s. To be worth dying for, it must be weighty and distinct. In these times are we so consumed by war that all art takes sides, or does art cease to become art once it is political? Theodor Adorno wrote that the genius of art lies in its ability to reveal what ideology conceals.

These are not new questions, but in this increasingly fraught world, they become ever more salient. The relationship between politics and art began to trouble me anew when I walked out of the The Fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment of the Lord of the Ring film trilogy in December 2001. It was just three months since the apocalyptic attacks and New York was still reeling. The tension of worldwide anticipation was palpable, something was coming, but what?

By the time the second part of the saga, The Two Towers was released last year, the invasions had begun and the nascent 21st century had become eerily similar to Middle Earth. Now, The Return of the King opens around the world at the same time that global news media display images of a defeated enemy undergoing public, intimate, physical inspection as a symbol of his complete submission and degradation.

We are living in times when the public rhetoric is medieval. Politicians and pundits invoke the words good and evil casually, as if the age of reason never happened. They speak proudly of killing, bullet-ridden corpses are triumphantly paraded. And like in Lord of the Rings, we define evil by demographics. The bloodline, the colour of skin, the ethnic background or nationality makes someone immediately suspect.

J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien

Can one judge a film with the morals of politics? Is Lord of the Rings seen differently in the United States than it is in Europe where the majority of people were against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq? A fable is “a narration intended to enforce a useful truth.” When I look at the Lord of the Rings as the fable its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, intended it to be, I see a world clearly divided into races and regions of leader and followers, I see Calvinist pre-determinism and I see the vindication and veneration of empire unfolding in frame after frame. And I feel the quick burn of shame that I always feel when realising that as a child I was taken in by a “useful truth” that now seems odious.

I can’t lay the sole blame for the Lord of the Rings’ atavistic classicism, racism and xenophobia with either auteur or author. It was Peter Jackson, the director, who chose his alabaster cast and decided that the camera would lovingly caress their sky-bold eyes. But Tolkien had lived through the horror of the “great war”, and he imagined a world where the qualities of leadership were in the blood and where social and moral hierarchy was clearly identifiable through race and appearance. As the spectre of a second world war loomed, it was a soothing reordering of the world with a clear delineation of good and evil.

Lord of the Rings was a “faerie story” according to Tolkien. Unlike many writers who prefer not to talk about craft, in 1939, he wrote a detailed description of the nature of faerie stories. He claimed that the best of them create ancillary worlds and do not ask the reader to willingly suspend disbelief, but draw them into a “secondary belief.”

A global phenomenon
A global phenomenon

Middle Earth was such a world, Tolkien claimed: his creative force sprang from a knowledge of folklore and a political blank slate. Never mind that he wrote the tale of a vast world-consuming battle in the years between 1936 and 1949, during which there was a vast world-consuming battle, he insisted that the real war did not resemble the legendary war of his books “in either process or conclusion,” since, he wrote:

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader and the other in the purposed determination of the author.” Yet in the same short foreword, Tolkien asks the reader not to forget that his generation had already lived through hideous times and that he personally experienced the first world war: “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

The world Tolkien lived in frightened him, and despite his protestations, he transferred his fears and experiences to his secondary world. Middle Earth reflected the deathly struggles he’d seen but he made it much simpler to distinguish good from evil. Elves, humans, hobbits and wizards were good for the most part. Orcs, trolls, and Sauron, the evil genius and lord of Mordor were smelly, ugly, and bad and none could shake their destiny. What was bred in the bone came out in the flesh. As Tom Nairn wrote in openDemocracy.net after he saw the first film in the trilogy, hordes of people preferred the simplicity of Tolkien’s secondary world to their own more complicated one, so much so that they wanted to live in it.

Tolkien’s fusty belief in hierarchy was probably common in 1930s Oxford, but Peter Jackson’s energetic interpretation of it in the 2000s is regressive. Although fantasy is not science fiction (the latter tends to envision a progressive future, the former often rewrites the past) the two have always been linked. Science fiction writers and filmmakers realise that a secondary world allows one to imagine a camaraderie that is born of like minds rather than phenotypes.

Tolkien’s physical descriptions are spare and therefore liberating for a director, yet Peter Jackson has cast the film according to codes of East vs West and black vs white. The evil creatures have darker skin and flat broad features, some wear turbans, others ride atop elephants in flat gazebos reminiscent of those that carried Indian maharajas. It resonates in a war-charged world where the rules of war have changed. States are no longer enemies so people must be.

In 1950, shortly after Tolkien had finished writing his epic, William Faulkner was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature. The second world war had just ended and nuclear war was the new threat. “Our tragedy today,” Faulkner said in his acceptance speech, “is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer questions of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

Pure fire or dark blood?
Pure fire or dark blood?

This struggle, this conflict in the human heart, is barely audible in Lord of the Rings, either in film or on paper. Character development is sparse and the only conflict seems to be with one’s destiny. When Aragorn the reluctant king is forced to make difficult choices he is exhorted to follow the destiny of his bloodline. And of the enemy’s struggles or motives we know nothing save that Sauron wants dominion over all. Do the Orcs follow him for love of the same? Money seems to figure little in Middle Earth. We hear only of power, of bending people to their will. The Orcs seem to be motivated primarily by a desire to eat their enemy. For all we know the realm of Mordor is barren, driving them out to seek food and fertile land. Tolkien and Jackson give us little to interpret.

Tariq Ali, Bernard-Henri Levy, Jane Kramer et al were consumed by the divide between world views. Until they had settled politics they could not turn their thoughts to culture. It meant little that the most recent successful foreign film in the United States was the cheery French film, Amelie.

Children most often want to know whether a character is good or bad, J.R.R. Tolkien claimed in his faerie essay. He and Peter Jackson have delivered us a simple meal of good versus evil and served it with pomp and circumstance. It may have been easy for me to yield to this fantastical secondary world had I come with adolescent naiveté. But like the PEN panelists, and yes like Tolkien, the fearsome spectre of war haunts me even as I try to abandon myself to art. Tolkien’s saga was voted the best-loved novel of all time by British readers, Jackson’s film version of it has earned critical and popular accolades. Yet primary beliefs invade secondary worlds, and it means that despite the beauty and grandeur of the pageant, to me the film series The Lord of the Rings stinks like an orc.

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