By Eleanor Arnason
I know this is a political blog, and I am going to write about politics in the future. But right now I want to write about the Lord of the Rings movies, which I have finally seen years after everyone else. Most especially, I want to write about why I found the movies so powerful and timely, seeing them in mid-2006 during a dark time of war.
The author of Lord of the Rings served in the First World War, and the book was written during the Second World War. The script for the movie was written at the end of the 20th century. I don't recall what wars were going on then. (I should. It was only six years ago.) But people in New Zealand, where the script was written, must remember WWII, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and East Timor… They are safe for the moment on their little green islands, like hobbits in the Shire, but war after war has raged to the north and east of them.
Tolkien's book and the movies have two great themes. One is power and the way people are corrupted by power and misuse power. The villains are driven by the desire for unlimited power and the arrogant belief that they are strong enough and smart enough to use unlimited power. The heroes -- above all Gandalf the wizard and Aragorn the king -- have a strong sense of how dangerous power can be. They refuse it or use it warily and reluctantly. The person who physically has the most power -- Frodo the Ring Bearer -- has only one goal, which is to destroy the ring of power and be free of it.
One of the great themes of current politics is the huge power that US had after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the attempt by the American government to use this power to remake the world as a place where every nation and person is subordinate to America. I think that's fair statement, though it's really hard to see George Bush as Sauron. Maybe we can see him as Saruman, the dime store imitation of Sauron.
I am more interested in the book and movies' second great theme, which is the proper way to act in a very dark situation. Some of the characters give in to despair and don't even try to oppose evil. The best example of this is Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, who reaches the point that he cannot see hope even when hope is in front of him, tries of cremate his still-living son and manages to cremate himself. Other characters become evil. Saruman is the best example of this. Instead of fighting the novel's great villain Sauron, he tries to become Sauron and ends as the petty thug Sharkey. All the people who give in to despair have been listening -- directly or indirectly -- to Sauron. His message is, "There is no alternative. I am the only reality. It is hopeless to strive for good." As Tolkien points out over and over, Sauron always lies.The greed and violence and ugliness of Mordor is not the only reality. The dark powers who dominate so much of our world also lie. When Margaret Thatcher said "There is not alternative" to the status quo, she was wrong.
The heroes of the story don't listen to Sauron and keep trucking. They never give up, though they have very little reason to believe they can succeed. There are, throughout the novel and movies, places and movements of beauty -- especially in the movies, which use the extraordinary landscape of New Zealand to remind us that much exists that is real and lovely and worth saving.
Tolkien was a scholar of medieval Germanic literature; and I see the influence of Beowulf and the Old Norse sagas on his idea of courage and loyalty and doing what has to be done, even when you are likely to fail. But his message is also that of mid-20th century Existential authors such as Camus and Sartre. (I can't imagine Tolkien being able to stand Camus and Sartre. They were far too modern and French.) And maybe it's a message worth thinking about now. As Paul Wellstone said, "Stand up. Keep fighting."