Public Nuisance

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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Tuesday, December 31, 2002
Avedon Carol has a fascinating discussion of the political implications of Tolkien that offers so many interesting points, from the moral qualities of orcs to the nature of fantasy, to write about that it's hard to pick one out. So I'll just head back to the starting point, whether LotR is 'pro-war' in a way that can be meaningfully compared to current policy disputes.

In a crude sense, Tolkien is pretty clearly pro-war. Tolkien drew on the heroic literature of pagan and early Christian northern European cultures. One way that he imitated this literature was in making his villain absolutely, unconditionally evil. There isn't much point to trying to deal with Sauron by negotiating with him - the only alternative is to fight him. And characters in the book seem to say pretty clearly at several points that he has been growing stronger while the forces of good looked away and avoided all out war. This is one of the major reasons that LotR has often been read as a parable about WWII.

Tolkien is obviously not a pacifist. But the suggestion that he's trigger happy doesn't seem consistent with the story. The war against Sauron and Saruman is fought by soldiers to a considerable degree, but look at who actually wins it. Saruman is overthrown by the ents, and Sauron defeated by hobbits. Each culture is pacific and non-military. Both keep to their own corners of Middle Earth so thoroughly that the ents are believed to be legends and hobbits are hardly known to those who don't live in or near the Shire. There seems to be no such thing as an army, a militia, or a professional soldier in either culture.

Tolkien also suggests the dangerous temptation of power. The ring is the most obvious symbol; not only is Boromir tempted by it, but even Sam has to struggle with the temptation. Saruman himself was once good, but seduced to evil in the course of his own struggle against it. Saruman uses jealousy and suspicion to trick some humans into becoming allies against Rohan, although it is clear that if he succeeds he intends ultimately to destroy his allies. Sauron has human allies coming up from the south; although just why they have allied themselves with Sauron is never made clear, they aren't portrayed as being inherently evil. Even Theoden becomes in some sense a tool of evil when he is under the influence of Wormtongue. It is obvious Tolkien understands that those who are not 'objectively pro-evil' can be made into tools of evil if they are not extremely careful. The ideal of heroism and military glory is one way they can be seduced, as is a dislike for what is foreign or strange to them.

In real world situations, the problems are not so simple. Even the struggle against Hitler, as close to a war against absolute evil as you are likely to get in real life, required an alliance with another tyranny only marginally less evil. Orcs may well be completely irredeemable things without human qualities (I am inclined to think so, although Patrick Nielsen Hayden doubts it); Moslems quite certainly are not.

It has been a trope among hawks for the past 50 years to see every war or peace question as another Munich, and every enemy as another Hitler. Bringing Sauron into the equation is the same thing in a more contemporary reference. As a culture, we remember Munich 1938 but have largely forgotten Sarajevo 1914, where unwillingness of key leaders to be perceived as backing down led to a war that nobody wanted, that could have been prevented, and cost millions of lives without really settling anything.