Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Free Folks vs. the Orcs

The Lord of the Rings trilogy parallels Western Civilization's current fight against radical Islamic terrorists
By Gene Edward Veith

EACH EPISODE OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS, AS IT came out year by year, resonated in an eerie way with current events. The Fellowship of the Ring showed terrifying Dark Riders breaking into the peaceful, complacent world of the Shire only a few months after Sept. 11, 2001, when ordinary hobbit-like Americans had to face up to the reality of terrorism.

The next year, The Two Towers showed the battle joined between the "free folks" and the forces of the Shadow, just as Americans were reacting to the destruction of their Two Towers by fighting the war in Afghanistan. This year, The Return of the King portrays a victory, in the aftermath of our own overwhelming but incomplete victory in Iraq, opening only a few days after the capture of the Dark Lord, Saddam Hussein. The movie even features a "spider hole."

A major theme of the trilogy, as the actor who played Gimli, John Rhy-Davies, told WORLD (Dec. 20, 2003), is the defense of Western civilization.

One of the reasons the novels and movies have the impact they do is that The Lord of the Rings is a compendium of Western culture. Its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, a professor of ancient literature, combined elements from the whole range of Western legends, epics, and heroic sagas old and new. The trilogy is filled with the images and atmosphere of Beowulf and King Arthur, with the cursed ring borrowed from the Germanic epic The Song of the Niebelungs and the character of Sam from Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers.

Audiences can relate to the heroism—including the theme of ordinary folks having to assume the mantle of heroism—and to the clash between good and evil and to the Christian symbolism because Tolkien is drawing from a deep and rich cultural heritage. Many people vaguely recognize it, though they may have forgotten what it is.

But the models are not just literary. The trilogy taps into cultural memories, evoking a history that many of our ancestors actually experienced. A massacring army outside the walls was commonplace from the time of the Old Testament, through the Middle Ages, to the 19th-century Napoleonic wars. The movie captured the wonder and the fear of the Roman legions when they were attacked by Hannibal's elephants, which were dealt with in similar ways. By far the most disturbing cultural memory, from both the movie and history, was the image of barbarian hordes sweeping through peaceful villages, with parents holding their children and running away from the slaughter as their homes were plundered and burned.

There was a time when Western civilization did collapse, when Rome fell, and barbaric tribes swept through Europe, raping and killing and destroying. During these Dark Ages, civilization—literacy, education, the arts, the preservation of the past, the further development of culture—was kept alive in and by the Christian church, which continued to copy out manuscripts, educate those who were interested, and promote a moral order to life.

The Dark Ages were ended not by war, though wars against the invaders were necessary, but by evangelism. When the church finally converted the barbarian tribes to Christianity, Western civilization came back to life.

Today, the "free folks" of the West are having to confront the violence and the worldview of the radical terrorists. The battle, though, is not just a military one.

In The Lord of the Rings, the civilization of the Elves and Men is exhausted. The Elves are weary, preferring to escape into their own reveries and to leave the world behind. The lands of Rohan and of Gondor have their glory years behind them and are now preoccupied with achieving political power and avoiding conflicts.

What makes Sauron so deadly is not only the Orcs but the way he has seduced into his service both "the wild men" and Saruman, the intellectual, the scientist and theologian, the head of Gandalf's order.

Similarly, the civilization that is under attack by the terrorists is also under attack from within, from its own intellectuals and its own seemingly liberal and cultured citizens who have come to hate their own heritage.

In The Return of the King, the tide of a major battle turns when Aragorn persuades the "army of the dead"—those who "have no beliefs"—to join the fray. These were traitors who refused to fight in the previous war against the Shadow and so were cursed. Aragorn gave them the chance to regain their honor, and this time they came through.

Perhaps those who refused to fight the Communists, the last threat to Western civilization, might be persuaded to abandon their current opposition to the war on terror. More importantly, perhaps the West will recover its nerve and its values. But this will require returning to the King.

Dear Mr. Veith,
As a fan of the Lord of the Rings, and a believer in both Christian and democratic virtues, I enjoyed your skillful and wide-ranging application of this epic story to current events. I use aspects of this story to teach certain psychological principles to the students that attend my college classes. Being a university lecturer may qualify me as one of the intellectuals or liberals you mention in this piece. I don’t think so, although I do admit denial is a constant force in much of human behavior, including mine. Still, regardless of what label I bear, I want to address what I see to be a deficit in your analogy.

There is a time when terrorism and tyranny must be squarely faced, no matter the cost. And Sauron-like seductions can be widespread, from the brute to the intelligentsia. But criticism, input and oversight are virtues of democratic society. I don’t like it when you and others generalize those who perform this vital function as fools who have been seduced into hating their heritage. I do think it is likely that you are closer to the reality of those who have the privilege of hating their country out loud. But I personally don’t know any America haters. I do know a lot of people who mix up loyalty and freedom with blustery and rigidly held opinions, which are then seasoned with a mixture of fact and hate. In this vein, the only thing I see separating some liberals from some conservatives is, well, nothing.

I personally believe that Saddam was as a bad as they come, and that the Iraqi people, for the moment, are better off. But I don’t hear anyone admitting that America was complicit in Saddam’s butchery. Every mass grave, rape, torture and murder under Hussein bears America’s fingerprint. America was Hussein’s accomplice. He paid us off with some acceptable semblance of military and economic stability abroad, and more disposable income and peace of mind at home. I think that you have to hate America to stay silent about all that.

I don’t think it’s accurate to always look at the evil “out there.” You must also look at the evil inside. So there are several other ways I apply the Lord of the Rings to this American/Iraqi matter. Sauron persists because Isildur allowed himself to be seduced by the Ring, and wouldn’t let it go when it was time. He let his own self-interest stand in the way of what would have been best for the world. He imagined his victory to be complete, his power to remain unchallenged, and his foes to always remain weak. But he fails miserably and sets the world up to fight another version of the same battle.

So Tolkien’s Ring symbolizes national security, oil, weapons, stock prices, GNP, elected office, vanity, personal opinion, and being too lazy or too beleaguered by the demands of chasing various American dreams, all of which can be corrupted into wraiths ringing in our collective ears, particularly when denial is spewing from Mt. Media.

Finally, it’s not true that the undead in the story have no beliefs. In fact, they believe they are the ultimate judge, jury and executioner of the realm they have claimed to be their own. Deep in the mountains of their self-interests, they are very powerful, and utterly entitled, at least until a truth teller like Aragorn shows up. They shift then from being predators to being servants, which is something I think some Americans need to learn as much as some Iraqis. The consequence in the story is much bigger than victory; it is redemption, which, according to my reading of Scripture, is something we all need.

I believe there are ways that America can learn to safeguard its security and prosperity without making dark deals with evil people. In order for America to mature and evolve in this way, matters like these have to be part of the national examination of conscience. And owning up is part of the process of being a good American, a good conservative, and a good Christian. Right now I don’t hear any of those people owning up about bedding down with a butcher. Instead, I hear Americans boasting that first we whipped Saddam’s ass, second we’ve captured it, and third we’re going to punish it. This boasting is punctuated with arguments about the importance of American interests and the beauty of American might.

You end your essay by claiming that our courage and values require turning back to the King, who I take to be Christ. I end my message to you by claiming that, as our relationship with Saddam has shown, American life has a dark side. I say be brave enough to take that to the King.

Robert A. Howard

I’m trying to picture Christ as a machine gunner on an Abrams tank in Iraq, “returning to the King” all those Iraqis who get in the way of US foreign policy. It’s not easy.

Rob Howard sent me his response to this editorial way back on January 17, 2004. At the time, this blog was the last thing on my mind. Is Rob “way cool” or what?

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