'The Lord of the Rings': ethnicity in your dreams

Tom Nairn
27 February 2002

The filmed version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novel The Lord of the Rings is a strange example of cultural resurrectionism. Like a tribal mythology returned from beyond what should have been its grave, Tolkien’s tale haunts the contemporary world. Haunts it successfully, of course, in the sense of box-office receipts, star names, British (and possibly American) Academy Awards, and colossal filming budgets: two farther episodes are under way after The Fellowship of the Ring. But what secret lies behind this success?

Reanimating England

The sorcerer who has raised this particular corpse from the dead is none other than globalisation itself. A world brusquely hurled into its rapids craves ethnicity to match — something drawn from a supposedly timeless and ‘colourful’ past, yet elastic enough to clothe an increasingly disconcerting and multi-cultural future.

Tolkien’s parade of racial exotica and forged languages meets this bill admirably, if superficially. Viewers find themselves propelled breathlessly across a universe of combative grotesques and scary goblins. These can be brought together only in an over-arching (and endless) War upon Absolute Evil. President Reagan had to make do with the ‘evil empire’ of Brezhnev’s bungling bureaucracy. By contrast, George W. Bush has been granted both ‘Terrorism’ and the return of Tolkien.

The tribe we see reanimated in the Ring films is unmistakably England. That was Tolkien’s basic impulse. As Humphrey Carpenter’s biography points out, what he most cared about was ‘a mythology for the English’ — something like the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, ‘a body of more or less connected legend which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my country’ (pp.125-6).

Carpenter indicates the element of chosen-ness in such dedication: the Tolkiens were of German origin, probably immigrants of the post-1789 period, and the author himself was born in South Africa. He had a ‘sense of rootlessness’ which led him to over-identify with his mother’s family tree. She was a Suffield, Anglo-Saxon as far back as the historical eye could see. Evesham in Worcestershire had been their home, and this was to become ‘the Shire’ of The Lord of the Rings. His Hobbits are idealised Anglo-rustics, ultra-modest folk who want to be left alone in a bucolic paradise, yet have something extraordinary in them. Tolkien originally thought of them as dwelling in ‘holes in the ground’, which in the film have become cute eco-cottages with turf roofs and oval windows. If rural idiocy is sufficiently threatened, these humble beings are nevertheless capable of rising to save ‘Middle Earth’ (Europe) and the entire world.

‘Baggins’ is like ‘Buggins’ or ‘Bloggs’, a name for an utterly ordinary bloke who will put up with a lot yet, once driven to it, can slay dragons better than anyone else. Fred (‘Frodo’) Baggins is played by Elijah Wood, a fresh-faced lad with metallic charm similar to Tony Blair’s. His job is confronting the Lords of Darkness and setting the world to rights.

Another key feature of Tolkien-land is that ‘…it should be “high”, purged of the gross’ — in other words, non-sexual. Ethereal Princesses swan about in The Fellowship of the Ring, oozing pedestal-wisdom. But they are without sex-appeal. Spiritual cloning counts for more in this world of English chaps. Morality is all, and character development is superfluous.

In Peter Jackson’s movie it is replaced by mind-numbing, non-stop action, as one wave of ogres follows another into perdition. To please children-of-all-ages, stereotypes must be unchallengeable, and adulthood is ceaselessly stunned by special effects. One emerges from beguilement blinking, and feeling it’s a terribly long way to Mordor (the equivalent of the Battle of Berlin, where Hitler/bin Laden must meet his doom).

America to the rescue

The saga was conceived around the time of the first world war, gestated during the Nazi rise to power, and published only after the second world war. It bundles together motifs and ideas from this whole epoch — Social Darwinism to the Cold War. Tolkien was a Tory who detested French cuisine and politics, and believed in Crown and Class. Carpenter quotes him on this: ‘Touching your cap to the Squire may be damn bad for the Squire but it’s damn good for you!’ But of course Hobbit-land in that sense declined throughout his lifetime, and had almost disappeared by his death in 1973.

No resurgence of Shire-land nationalism echoed the appearance of his ‘myth for the English’ — quite the contrary, it was the Dwarves and Elves of the periphery who were to move in that direction. After the triumph of 1940-45, Hobbit country itself sank back into custom–bound somnolence and half-hearted Americanisation. His fabular universe lost its intended anchorage point.

However, it gained another: the American market. This was to some extent prefigured by the U.S. success of his earlier story The Hobbit in 1937: it immediately won the New York Herald Tribune prize for ‘best juvenile book’ of the season. After the original publication of the first Ring book in 1954 there could be no doubt: American students fell for it in unprecedented fashion. By 1966 one newspaper reported : ‘At Yale the trilogy is selling faster than Golding’s Lord of the Flies. At Harvard it is outpacing The Catcher in the Rye…’

Lapel badges, Tolkien societies, ‘hobbit-picnics’ and PhD theses soon followed, and the alchemy of US culture disseminated the vogue around the world. Even the English were affected: UK sales rose sharply, a Tolkien Society was set up in London, and Gandalf’s Garden appeared with the avowed aim of ‘bringing beautiful people together’. Thus the drifting spores of deracinated Englishness settled elsewhere, and at length re-colonised the Shire itself, making Tolkien wealthy.

A universe of shallowness

The best way to access this virtual reality is the web. A colossal cyber-acreage is available, but the best intro may be ‘The JRRT Fanatics Site’ on www.lordoftherings.com, which has selected links to many other sources — societies, encyclopedias, atlases of Middle-Earth, competitions, quizzes, prizes and so on. ‘Alternative universe’ is no exaggeration here: serious exploration would take longer than getting to Mordor. By the time the screen version gets to the Final Battle, in 2004 or so, billions may be hooked.

Tolkien apparently would never countenance any comparison between his folkum myths and those of Richard Wagner. One can see why. Wild national romanticism is common to both, but they differ greatly in both aesthetic quality and cultural fate.

Wagner’s emotional spectrum is incomparably deeper, and resonates in the operatic music of Parsifal and Tristan and Isolda. Tolkien wished to re-create the pagan epic Beowulf, for which he nourished an academic and linguistic passion. But he lacked the poetical soul to do this, and was in any case far too much of a Christian. The result was a children’s fable, interminable but shallow.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle merged into the mounting tide of Germanic nationalism with fatal consequences — yet also possessed qualities which have survived that disaster. Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy missed its intended political boat, and was saved only by aberrant popularity upon another: the U.S. ‘sixties, followed by U.S.-led expansion after 1988-9.

Though borne upwards by the initial flood-tide of this process, it is not likely to endure. Its childishness fits into that of first-flush, hectic globalisation all too well. In this raw, novel context, Tolkien’s very limitations help to explain his runaway success. Before long, I suspect it will appear all too typical of the era when people thought the world was indeed (in Thomas Frank’s phrase) One Market Under God and de-regulation eternally the narrow path of His angels.

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