Battle scene from Lord of the Rings-Fellowship of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings

The Geopolitics of the Ring

Coziness v. greatness and Tolkien’s real bittersweet geopolitics.

Todd Seavey

An alliance of nations sets aside its internal quarrels to face the greater enemy that threatens them all.

It’s a common theme both in real-world history and in fiction, though the real-world examples don’t usually involve dwarfs, elves, and hobbits. For J. R. R. Tolkien, reality brought the horror of the Battle of the Somme, in which he fought, losing two close friends. Imagination made him author of the fantasy trilogy Lord of the Rings, the movie version of which opened December 19. Though Tolkien swore that Lord of the Rings is not allegorical, World War I clearly influenced the dark tone of the books. That pervasive sense of world-threatening peril is one reason the trilogy has a power far greater than a typical fairy tale.

The beautifully executed and highly faithful first movie in the series, Fellowship of the Ring, captures another important part of the trilogy’s power: the sobering, mature realization that victory over great evil does not come without a high cost. Dwarfs, elves, and hobbits may be cute, but when the time comes to fight the Dark Lord Sauron, they don’t skip off to war singing merry tunes and carrying bags of magic beans, and their world is a bit worse for wear when the conflict is over. Life will never be quite the same after the war.

Though a film cannot easily capture all the background details, songs, and faux-historical depth of Tolkien’s world, his plot, thank goodness, is intact. The only significant changes are a beefed-up role for the elf princess Arwen (an improvement, since she was easily forgotten in the novels—and in the novels, she wasn’t played by Liv Tyler), more time spent with the evil wizard Saruman (played with undiminished villainy by the aging Christopher Lee), and the wise deletion of the nature-lover Tom Bombadil. Bombadil’s dryad-like detachment from the war would have been boring on film and was, frankly, pretty boring in the original novel. The character was a holdover from stories Tolkien told to amuse his children, before he really hit his stride and attacked more mature themes.

Tolkien, a language scholar, put a great deal of work into developing the elaborate tongues, customs, and homelands of Middle-Earth’s various races, not just because he was an obsessive nerd but because the drama of Middle-Earth’s peril is heightened by its cultural richness, just as more conventional, more modern novels are given depth by the psychological subtlety of their main characters. Diverse traditions are at stake in the war with Sauron—ways of life, not just vague abstractions called good and evil. Though Sauron is clearly evil, it is a realpolitik story of warring lands, blood and soil, not a story of rival philosophies.

What a contrast there is, then, between Lord of the Rings and so many of the futuristic science fiction novels also written in the mid-twentieth century. Much sci-fi of that period depicted the ideal world as one of sterile, conformist rationality, with few traces of tradition or sentiment. Almost invariably, that sci-fi replaced distinctive nations and customs—at least on Earth—with a homogeneous world government. It was an ideal born of modernism, the same impulse that gave us cold, geometric architecture in place of ornamentation and stiff, inhuman performance art pieces in place of real drama.

Tolkien’s ideals are born not of cold futurism but of a respect for the distant past and particularly for Celtic, English, and Norse legends. So the elf kingdom of Rivendell, the underground dwarf kingdom of Moria, and the human city of Gondor all have an uncanny air of familiarity about them. Tolkien was self-consciously creating a new mythology for England using bits of the old mythology that England had forgotten and imbuing them with an all too convincing realism informed by the then-recent fight against the Hun, the marauding beast from the east. Lord of the Rings resonates in such a way that those who dismiss it as kids’ stuff reveal not their depth but their shallowness.

One very grown-up theme in Tolkien’s trilogy is the characters’ awareness that even by opposing Sauron, by leaving their separate enclaves to participate in the affairs of the world, the unique traditions of each nation of Middle-Earth will be to some extent compromised. Hobbits and dwarves do not naturally think like Wilsonians, out to spread their political practices around the globe. To fight in the war, the old, insular habits of elves and dwarfs will have to be put aside, the hobbits will have to leave their peaceful lives in the Shire, unmagical humans will grow in importance, and a bit more magic and beauty will be drained out of the world. Though the rise of a human king for all Middle-Earth is the happy ending sought, and though that ending is a deliberate echo of Arthurian legend and Christian traditions, the reader is told repeatedly that the new, monarchical era will inevitably be forgetful of noble, older ways—local ways. As the wizard Gandalf tells the new king: “preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away.”

Compare that bittersweet, world-weary victory to the chessboard and quasi-soccerfield triumphs that Harry Potter achieves. Wonderful though the first Harry Potter film may be in its own way, it presents our heroes with terrors and moral challenges no greater than those in a videogame. Magic is a skill Harry must master, like catching a ball. But Tolkien’s characters must grapple with the greater challenge of resisting the lust for power, embodied in the Ring. Power corrupts, as Tolkien knew—and as all too many people living in the twentieth century had forgotten amidst plans to remake the world through military adventurism, Nazi eugenics, communism, world government, and other revolutions.

At the end of Tolkien’s trilogy, after Sauron’s defeat, as moviegoers will probably see in 2003, the hobbits return to the Shire—clearly analogous to England—to find that it has adopted a sort of wartime socialism in their absence, its inhabitants seeking security through command and control in a feeble imitation of Sauron. Bureaucracy reigns instead of family, friendship, small-scale commerce, and easy-going traditionalism. This epilogue was Tolkien’s most blatant swipe at the modern world, a world against which Lord of the Rings posits a more old-fashioned, more communitarian ideal—a world where good people still recognize their own limits and understand the need for decency and gentleness, not just political or technical power.

Tolkien is not so different in spirit from nineteenth-century British authors who held up medieval ideals as a remedy for the coarseness of life during the Industrial Revolution—witness Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. The difference is that the nineteenth-century writers (and Tory politicians) exaggerated the joys of the past and the horrors of their own age, forgetting that most people lived short lives on the brink of starvation prior to the Industrial Revolution. Tolkien had better reason to long for a different world. He was faced with the undeniable horror of two world wars, which unlike capitalism did not merely alter traditional ways of life but annihilated them.

The world Tolkien imagined is not without war and heroism, but its heroes always remember, even while on far-flung adventures, that home, hearth, parties, story-telling, and friends are preferable to violence, conquest, and empire-building. Coziness is superior to greatness, you might say, though greatness is sometimes needed. If Tolkien’s books and the new films help inspire people, even in tiny ways, to make the real world as hospitable, humble, and unimperial as the Shire, that’s one more victory in the never-ending war against darkness.

Todd Seavey, a Phillips Foundation Fellow, is writing a book entitled Conservatism for Punks.

posted by editor ::: February 12, 2002 ::: philms :::