Monday, May 15, 2017

J.R.R. Tolkien Got Many Things Correct, And Many Others Wrong

I originally wrote this back in 2002 on my now defunct Dain Bramage blog that was hosted elsewhere.  I've thought about re-posting it, and a recent discussion over on File770 makes this a good time for re-posting.  Enjoy!


Just this past Christmas, I received a copy of "The Lord of the Rings", "The Silmarillion", and "The Hobbit". J.R.R. Tolkien's series has always held an attraction for me. His writing borders on being magical.

The difference now is that it has been roughly 20 years since I first read his works. With a bit of experience under my belt, the series takes on new meanings. Here are some things that came to mind while reading his books.

J.R.R. Tolkien got so much right.

First of all, I find it ironic that this book should have become first popular in the 60's. One of the major themes of the book is the ability of power to corrupt. Frodo travels far and wide in his quest to dispose of the One Ring. The Ring will grant whoever wears it the power to essentially rule the world.

Frodo has the wisdom to discern between who would do evil with such power and who (he thinks) would do good. This is good for us as he is immediately assailed by those that would do evil (evildoers??) and if he had just turned the durned thing over, we would have a mighty short read indeed.

Consider all who are offered the ring.

Gandolf -- who is essentially immortal, to begin with as well as being a powerful wizard on the side of "good". He rejects the ring several times and comments as well on the burden of temptation.

Elrond -- who likewise recognizes that keeping and not using the Ring simply guarantees that Sauron would win it back someday. He also recognizes that using the Ring would inevitably cause him to either turn to evil or be consumed by the Ring.

Strider/Aragorn -- who in the end is not only proven to be brave and honest but a wise and powerful ruler as well. Strider rejects the Ring as being too great a responsibility for him to bear.

Galadriel -- who is pretty powerful in her own right and is demonstrated to be a very decent person, judges that she lacks the ability to master such power.

Then there is the case of Boromir and his father. Each feels that possession of the ring is within his ability to control. They have a certain unspoken lust for power. Boromir's father, Steward of Gondor in the stead of the missing line of kings, goes so far as to state his opposition to the returning king. He isn't inclined to relinquish power to some unproven upstart. How might things have worked out if HE had obtained the ring?

We also have the case of Sauron and Sarumon. Two who wanted to possess the Ring for their own purposes. One was just plain evil and the other thought his evil was good for other people. Let the world be ordered by the wizards and only good would come of it, or so Saruman thought. Sure, only the "best and the brightest" should have power and they will only do good.

As if those morality plays were not enough, we have the scenes of the hobbits returning to the Shire and finding that someone has claimed that realm for his own. Using big men to rough up any protestors, Lotho has set up whole lists of rules that aren't too be broken. He has set the men to collecting large portions of the local crops to be "shared". Of course, the sharing just means that men in his service have lots to eat while others go hungry.

Lotho also sets about seizing people's property, tearing it down, and essentially "remodeling" the countryside to meet his own needs. The new mill that spews waste into the river is his little piece of handiwork.

Just like any other government, Lotho takes what he desires, sets up poisonous works where he wants and cares little about who gets hurt.

The prosperity of the Shire that came from their previous freedom was destroyed by regulation and taxation. That prosperity was only recovered after Frodo reduced "the Sherriffs to their proper functions and numbers."

As I said at the start, I find it a bit ironic that J.R.R. Tolkien's work became so popular in the 1960's. After all, the politics on college campuses in that era essentially called for greater government intervention into everyone's lives. They were successful Boromirs and we are left with their mess.

J.R.R. Tolkien got so very much right.

He also got so very much wrong.

There is another bit of irony that goes with J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and its popularity in the 1960's. Fans of the book, then as now, point to the simplistic life led by the main characters as being virtuous. They also point out the chapters where a loathsome mill poisons the river as being indicative of economic "progress".

"Simplistic" is an apt word for such thoughts.

"The Lord of the Rings" is filled with metal. Steel swords and armor, iron columns, silver horns and goblets, and of course mithril are present on almost every page.

Metalworking, by its very nature, requires a very hot flame in order to purify, mold, and work the metal. Creating such heat inevitably creates some sort of pollution. Decades ago, Pittsburgh used to be a city of dense smog and smoke from the iron and steel works. Burning coal to refine iron ore cause a lot of pollution. Fortunately, we have better ways of producing steel and iron that are less polluting.

In order to have such a level of metalsmith knowledge in Middle-Earth, there must have been a great many forges. Such operations are by their nature dirty. And because they are labor intensive, they couldn't have been hidden back in the mountains someplace away from the population centers. To the contrary, the forges would have generated population centers.

Another explanation might be a sort of understated racism. The dwarves of Middle-Earth are known for their craftsmanship in metalworking. I guess the mess of metalworking is only acceptable as long as it is kept underground near "those" people. But hey! It is only a book.

Another great anachronism is the sort of idyllic life that everyone leads. Frodo lives the life of a country squire. He does nothing but enjoys life. It is somehow assumed that it is possible to prepare 6 meals a day (hobbit fashion) and then leave enough time for gardening and other interests.

Anyone who has tended a significant garden can tell you that such endeavors consume a great deal of time. When one has no other means of supporting oneself, it consumes all of one's time. There isn't time for 6 meals a day. There is barely enough time for two decent meals and a snack at noon.

Similarly, the elves seem to do nothing. Food appears at the appropriate time and everyone eats their fill. Otherwise, the elves are heard singing in the trees.

These conditions could not exist anywhere in the real world. Only the wealthy and the powerful live such lives of leisure. Everyone else must work to create their leisure.

The only real acknowledgment of reality in the book is when Merry and Pippen end up serving the kings at the feast following the battle outside of Mordor. They stand and serve while others sit and eat.

The creation of wealth requires innovation and technological progress. Only the creation of wealth can end poverty. Attempting to live in a Luddite society only ensures that the poor will continue to remain poor.

On this count, J.R.R. Tolkien got so very much wrong.

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