Thursday, October 19, 2006

Nothing in Middle-earth happens by accident

"There are no accidents in Middle Earth. Frodo's will fails at the last moment, but it was sufficient to bring the Ring as far as Mount Doom. (Aragorn or Gandalf would have gone Dark Lord long before that.) Gollum is around to fall into the Cracks only because Frodo's mercy spared him, when plain straightforward Sam could see that killing him was the smart thing. And not just mercy: empathy as well. Frodo could pity Gollum, because he knew what it was to be tortured by the Ring's power."

That's Mike Schilling commenting on the post below and he's making a good point.

I wrote that Frodo fails. At the last moment he's corrupted by the Ring, and he, and the World of Men, are only saved by the accidents of Gollum's showing up, taking the Ring from Frodo, and falling into the pit with it.

But Mike is right. Gollum is only alive to be there because of Frodo. His arriving to "save" Frodo is in an important way Frodo's own doing. Frodo saves himself on Mount Doom before he even gets there, through his own kindness and decency.

This is Tolkien's take on the old, old theme of Everyman, that in the end all we have to accompany us into heaven, all that will take us there, all that saves us, is our Good Works.

Peter Jackson's movies, great as they are, make much more of Aragorn and the battles than Tolkien himself does. The books are about Frodo and his quest. Tolkien actually does a pretty cursory job on the battle scenes. He's much more interested in what's happening inside and immediately around Frodo than he is in the great world of men. The Lord of the Rings is mainly the story of one soul's journey towards heaven.

Putting it that way, though, makes it sound like an allegory, a 20th Century follow-up to A Pilgrim's Progress.

There are allegorical elements in Lord of the Rings, but it has far more in common with epics and romances. It is a symbolic work, and its symbolism is self-referential. The symbols point us towards the books' own themes and meanings. Characters are meant to be seen as meaning themselves, actions taken at face value. The books are about themselves.

Understanding what Tolkien is up to isn't a matter of finding one to one correspondences between what happens in the story and things in real life.

The battle of Pelennor Fields is not Armageddon and Aragorn is not the second coming of Jesus Christ.

I don't think there was anything wrong with Rick Santorum using a reference to a classic work of fiction to make a point about things going on in real life. Where would great public speakers be without Shakespeare and the Bible to crib from?

Art is about life, after all.

Shakespeare himself was pretty firm on the subject. Well, Hamlet was, anyway.

"Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live."

I think Santorum's allusion was inapt. But I'm more disturbed by the point he was using the eye of Sauron to make---that it's a good thing that all those Iraqis and American soldiers and Marines are getting killed every day, otherwise we might have to worry about getting killed ourselves.

It's better all those people die on our behalf than that we have to think twice about going to the mall.

But the allusion was inapt, in several ways, mainly by being an attempt to draw an allegorical comparison rather than seeing the symbolic point.

Sauron is not Osama or, even more allegorically interpreted, Terror. Bush is not Frodo and he's definitely not Aragorn. But he's not Saruman or the Witch King either. Cheney may act like Grima Wormtongue on Bush, but he's not Grima. The terrorists aren't orcs, and neither are Republicans or Right Wingers or Right Wing bloggers, although some of them sure can be orc-like in their thinking.

I am Grima.

I am Theoden too. I am Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin.

I am Bilbo and Gollum.

I am an orc. And so are you.

The Lord of the Rings is not a political work. It has no political lessons to teach. It's a moral work. It's about the inner lives of individuals, not the public functioning of societies.

A very important way Santorum's allusion was wrong is that it uses Sauron as a stand in for an outside threat.

Sauron is an inner evil. That's why he has no body and no personality. It's why his armies are mostly anonymous.

Evil, in the Lord of the Rings, isn't an Other. It's a destructive force within ourselves that we bring to bear upon ourselves.

The bad guys are kind of a disappointing and unscary lot, just a bunch of fairy tale hobgoblins led by a yet another evil wizard, until they are seen for what they are---mirror images of the good guys.

The orcs used to be elves.

Gollum was a hobbit cousin.

There's Gandalf, and there's Saruman.

There's Theoden and there's Denethor.

Aragorn is mirrored by the Nazgul, all of whom used to be great kings, and by his own ancestor, Isildur. Boromir is his double too. All of them, the Nazgul, Isildur, and Boromir represent choices Aragorn could have made and could still make. They are symbolic of his temptations and weaknesses.

The Armies of Mordor are mustering to destroy the World of Men, but the Armies of Mordor include men. The Easterlings are not literally enemies from the East. They are not Nazis or the Soviets or the Red Chinese or Islamic terrorists. They are the men of the West, the men of Rohan and Gondor, facing themselves in the mirror, the way West and East face each other across the compass dial not in opposition but as two names for the same ideas, "Where we are" and "Where we are going," with either being either. We could be going one way as easily as we could be going the other.

The greatest evil in Middle-earth, the greatest temptation, is the work not of Sauron but of the Ring. That evil is the lust for power and self-aggrandizement or, in the case of hobbits, the craven desire to be left alone, to separate from the world and its troubles, to hide in a cave, secret, self-contained, solitary, with no concern for anybody or anything but our own selfish wants and pleasures. Some life, chewing on raw fish while talking to our own reflections, but it's amazing how alluring it is and how often we all succumb.

Anyway, that's why it almost always seems to work, accusing someone else of being like this character or that from Lord of the Rings.

Because at some point we all are like this or that character or all the characters---except for Aragorn.

That's who we're all supposed to be trying to be.

Even Strider.

All I know about Tolkien I know from reading Tom Shippey's J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.


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