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15062RE: [mythsoc] Tolkien on Film: critique (long)

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  • David Bratman
    May 28, 2005
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      At 04:43 PM 5/27/2005 -0500, Croft, Janet B. wrote:

      >Anyway, I don't think Smyth was totally off in seeing something of an
      >ambivalent nostalgia for "empire" in Tolkien's work, though in his
      >letters he seemed to feel the ideal government to live under would be
      >that of the Shire -- close to anarchy in the "minimal or no government"
      >rather than chaotic sense

      Responding to you rather than to Smyth (since I don't follow her arguments)
      - there's a serious danger of confusion here between Tolkien's real-life
      political beliefs and what he expresses in his fiction. In Middle-earth
      there is a True King. In the primary world there isn't. That makes all
      the difference. It is furthermore jumping to precarious conclusions to
      assume that the ramifications of the set-up in Middle-earth are those
      Tolkien would have liked in the primary world even though he acknowledged
      them to be impossible.

      What Tolkien said in his letter to Christopher (29/11/43) was that he
      preferred minimalist anarchy or "unconstitutional" monarchy. What he's
      opposing both of these to is what he calls "Theyocracy," the assumption of
      power by large bureaucratic party-oriented governments, which is pretty
      much required in any empire that's not a pure personal rule of an emperor.
      In many other places he denounces the rising power of the state: in these
      respects he was an old-fashioned conservative. (What he would have thought
      of an emperor is probably well contained in an interview comment that
      [quasi-quote] "tipping your hat to squire may be damn bad for squire but
      it's damn good for you.")

      None of this really fits in with a nostalgia for the British Empire, and in
      every respect Tolkien was a small-England man. In his next letter to
      Christopher (9/12/43), he writes, "I love England (not Great Britain and
      certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!))". Commonwealth was still a
      very new term then, and he says nothing about empire. But the rest of the
      letter is a denunciation of the growing uniformity of the world from a man
      who always thought individual places should be as distinct as possible -
      that's the point of there being different places.

      That belief is certainly reflected all through his fiction. And if it's to
      be seen in Fourth Age politics, it's in Elessar leaving his realms to
      govern themselves as much as possible. His predecessors had actually ceded
      Rohan; it was a separate country bound by treaty (not merely by friendship)
      with Gondor. His grant of total autonomy to the Shire is recognition of
      the situation that had held since the North-kingdom ended a thousand years
      earlier.

      >But the older history of
      >Middle-earth, especially as seen in the Silmarillion (which Tolkien
      >began writing while he was defending the British empire in the
      >trenches), is full of great empires and their rise and fall, their
      >inherent strengths and weaknesses.

      It's about major pitched war, yes, and tightly-held kingdoms, but there are
      no empires except Morgoth's. Fingolfin and Fingon as High Kings of the
      Noldor lead by example and persuasion, not by imperial power, and kings
      like Turgon and Thingol, and even Finrod, not to mention the sons of
      Feanor, have their own, often conflicting, agendas. As Sara writes, "The
      presence of the Elves on Middle-earth in the First Age was not an empire
      but a diaspora; their kingdoms and settlements were autonomous enclaves;
      there was no central government." The last part is not strictly true, but
      it's close enough.

      She also mentions the Numenorean empire, which Tolkien didn't even invent
      until the mid 1930s, and didn't fully explore until the 1950s, and about
      which he had in any case highly ambiguous feelings: see "Aldarion and Erendis."

      Sara also writes:

      > Yes, the reductionism is what I get incensed about. ...
      > In extracting from both book and film some bare facts (that battles are
      >fought, evil overcome, empire ((not really)) established) Smyth obscures,
      >not to say obliterates all this "speaking" of the book. Millions of people
      >from different walks of life, conditions, classes, races, nationalities find
      >this book speaks to them. It isn't and it cannot be because it offers views
      >about western empire as a bulwark against evil.

      What incenses me in this area is the point of view expressed by John West
      and Peter Kreeft in _Celebrating Middle-earth_ (a book from the same people
      who brought us _Untangling Tolkien_). They take the view that the moral
      lesson of LOTR is that evil is real and must be fought. It seems to me
      that Tolkien takes that for granted: propitiating evil is rejected out of
      hand and appeasing it is never even considered; the weakness of the good is
      faitheartedness (it is this which Denethor and, initially, Theoden, suffer
      from).

      No, the real moral lesson of LOTR is to avoid the arrogance of power. Take
      care that you do not become evil in your eagerness to fight it. This is
      what Boromir fails to grasp; this is the test that Galadriel passes. Even
      Saruman, the prime propitiator, is really suffering from arrogance.

      For this reason, I conclude that the moral application of LOTR to the
      current world situation is pretty much the opposite of what West and Kreeft
      think it is.

      David Bratman
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